Painting a grim picture of “these ruthless, self-serving agents,” the WGA today released five new position papers on its key demands for a new franchise agreement with the Association of Talent Agents.
“We don’t want to bombard you with information, but we think these will be useful in thinking through the thornier issues in this campaign,” wrote Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA’s negotiating committee, in a message to the guild’s members.
The comments came ahead of a meeting between the two sides on Tuesday. It will be the first time they’ve sat down together since Feb. 19.
These thornier issues are the WGA’s proposed bans on packaging fees and agency production deals with related entities. The WGA East and West have set aside only one day – March 25 – for members to vote on a new Code of Conduct that would allow the guild to order its members to fire all agents who refuse to sign the Code after the existing agreement expires April 6.
One of the “documents” the guild released today acknowledges that it will be hard for writers to fire their agents if that day comes. “Yes, it is scary to look your agent in the eye and say, regardless of my personal feelings for you and our years of relative success together, my Guild has asked me to demand that you either behave as my true fiduciary or step aside. But, out of necessity and at long last, that is what all of us may have to do.”
“It is true that we are asking you to hold your individual agent accountable if he or she is employed at a packaging agency,” the guild said. “Those agents – even the best and most effective of them – are participating in and profiting from a system that is corrupt and destructive to the economic best interests of writers.”
You can see the position paper here in its entirety.
Vowing to return the big agencies to mere collectors of 10% commissions – and arguing that the agencies will be able to recoup some of their lost fees from the studios, the guild said: “you can bet that when these ruthless, self-serving agents are faced with the economic reality that they only earn a dollar when we earn ten, they will find a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of the system – for writers and themselves.”
In a position paper on packaging, the guild said: “We are all ‘free agents.’ Our value comes not from being housed in the offices of UTA, ICM, CAA or WME. It derives from our own talent. The marketplace of film and television is best served when writers, directors, actors and producers, who are suited to each other on any given project, are connected to each other by agents who put the interests of their clients first. That is their legal obligation. We made no deal to advance the careers of our agents. They are secondary beneficiaries to our success and not the other way around.
“When the world is realigned to work that way, the ‘packaging’ of projects by attaching talent will happen because it is in everyone’s best interest – writers, directors, actors, studios, networks and agents. And it will happen across agency lines.”
Packaging has been around for decades, but the guild saved its lengthiest argument against agency involvement in production deals through related entities.
“Under the regime of packaging fees, your employer and your representative make a side-deal that enormously benefits the party that ought to be your fiduciary. That’s bad for writers and good for agencies in so many ways. But it still requires the agencies to strike a deal with a bona fide third party.
“So now, led by WME – with CAA and UTA following close behind – your agents have found a way to simplify that process for themselves. They have sought to eliminate the third party altogether and become both agent and studio – our representatives and our bosses.
“All of them try to hide that fact, of course. WME and Endeavor Content, CAA and Wiip and UTA and Civic Center Media all swear that there is acceptable separation between the individual agency and its ‘affiliated studio.’ That is false on its face.
“These production companies are owned or jointly owned by the agencies and their parent corporations. Does anyone pretend that ABC Network and Touchstone Television are unrelated entities that bargain hard with each other to maximize their individual interests rather than the interests of Disney as a whole? With their so-called ‘affiliated studios’ the agencies are merely replicating the incestuous practice of vertical integration that this Guild has fought so hard against.
“These new studios gain their competitive advantage by touting to the rest of the world their access to us – as if they were the old Warner Brothers or MGM of the 30s and 40s, with their stable of writers under contract. To us – the writers – they promise a better deal than we can get elsewhere.
“But we, as writers, know all too well the truth of what vertical integration brings. It means only being able to sell to an affiliated entity – and then facing a unified buyer and seller that can keep profits hidden.
“Throughout the history of this business, vertical integration has enriched everyone but the writer. Do we really believe that this time it’s being done for our benefit? As harmful as packaging is, for agencies to be producers and employers is a conflict of grossly larger proportion.
“When your agency’s affiliate is your employer, you have no agency. And your agency’s solution is for you to hire a lawyer to help mitigate their conflict. And they still want their 10% of your earnings or a package fee on their own production.
“There’s no math or theory necessary to explain the problem. Every dollar you get paid is a dollar less the agency or their related parties get to keep. It’s not unlike the relationship you have with a studio. Except the studio is not your agency.
“Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department forced MCA to choose between being a producer or an agency in 1962. MCA chose to produce and became Universal Studios. Writers found plenty of other good agencies to represent them. WME, CAA and UTA face the same choice.”
As a footnote, the guild added: “Some agents have actually changed their email address in the past month to try to make it appear their work is not still intricately connected to the rest of their corporate structure.”