Last Friday, members of the negotiating committees of the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents met for the first time since talks between the two sides had broken off on April 12. After the ATA presented its new franchise agreement proposals, WGA West Executive Director David Young told the agents that his team would get back to them “next week”.
The week is coming to an end today without a response from the WGA. From what I hear, there have been no talks, no backchanneling, no any official or unofficial communication over the past seven days.
It was the agencies who initiated the attempt to restart talks via an email by UTA’s Jay Sures to WGA’s David A. Goodman. Eager to put an end to the stalemate, agency leaders reportedly spent long hours, working with the ATA, to put together the proposals that were presented to the WGA last Friday. The agencies showed up in full force, with the entire ATA Negotiating committee present. Of the 25-member WGA Negotiating committee, 11 attended the meeting. They had only one question after the ATA presentation, whether there was a red-lined version of the proposals, in which any changes from the previous offer are underlined to make it easier to read.
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The guild’s leadership said something different in their update to members after the meeting, which I hear came as a surprise to those who were at the sit-down. “We have asked for contract language on their proposals in order to formulate the appropriate response,” the WGA wrote to members last Friday.
Even in the room, the guild’s negotiators appeared underwhelmed by the new proposals, which still include packaging — with increased revenue sharing offer from 1% to 2.5% for writers — and affiliated production entities, with new layers for transparency and opportunities for clients to opt-out introduced.
“There was cause for concern, including a revenue sharing proposal that instead of 1% is now 2%,” the guild cautioned after the meeting, adding, “as we’ve stated, whatever solution we find, it will have to address conflicts of interest and realign agency incentives with those of their writer clients.”
Eliminating the practices of packaging and affiliated production, identified by the guild leadership as inherent sources of conflict of interest, had been at the core of the WGA campaign against the ATA, which was backed by an overwhelming membership vote for a new Code of Conduct that does not allow for either of the practices.
To give WGA a nudge, ATA on Monday released a memo sent to their member-agencies, saying that “the time has come for the WGA’s leadership to start bargaining in earnest.”
ATA’s first written proposal, submitted on April 12, the last day of negotiations between the two sides, was rejected on the spot by the WGA which did not counter. (“The proposal of .8% to writers of backend of new series … in no way realigns agency incentives with those of writers,” Goodman later told Deadline. “It wasn’t a serious proposal, and thus didn’t deserve a counter-offer other than that we still believe 10% commission is the appropriate amount that agencies should receive for representing writers.”)
ATA has been hoping things would go differently this time.
“Our second offer is a starting place for renewed negotiations – an opportunity to press reset,” ATA executive director Karen Stuart and ATA president Jim Gosnell, head of the APA agency, wrote in the Monday email. “The guild should not subject this offer to another flat-out rejection without counter. We encourage them to sit back down with us, roll up our sleeves and together work through the issues.”
So far, there are no signs of that happening. I hear two of the three co-chairs of the WGA-Agency Agreement Negotiating Committee may even be out of town.
I hear ATA did not resubmit their proposals from last Friday with contract language. No one I spoke with believes that is a deal-breaker as the agents’ current proposals as prepared are said to be detailed in all six areas of negotiation with term sheets. (ATA is proposing a five-year agreement vs. three years in the WGA’s enacted Code of Conduct and modifications in other sections of the Code that have been problematic for agencies, even smaller ones, including arbitration proceedings.)
Agreements usually convert to contract language once the main deal points have been agreed upon. It also is more common in labor negotiations, not contract disputes, which this is.
The nature of the conflict between the WGA and ATA is probably at the heart of trying to figure out how it may get resolved. While agents have approached it largely as a standard business negotiation where you start with a low offer and gradually give up ground until an agreement is reached, the guild’s leadership have portrayed it as a righteous fight, framing it as as an ideological, ethical battle against conflict of interest.
From that position, they have so far been unwilling to compromise on any of the core issues, making a negotiation impossible so far. Making the battle with agents a moral crusade also has put the WGA leadership under extra scrutiny. There was backlash when Negotiating Committee co-chair Chris Keyser recently took out a packaged project produced by Endeavor Content, a studio affiliated with agency WME. I hear another guild leader was recently in talks for a project at the same studio but backed out when confronted by writers. Many of the members of the Negotiating Committee are successful showrunners with rich overall deals that have pre-negotiated packages in them for years to come.
Helping the guild in prolonging the standoff — currently in its 63rd day — is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be the same urgency as there is during a strike.
‘Even in the most recent writers strike in 2007-08, it took 100 days when it was a stoppage — no one was working or getting paid,” a top agency source said. “We are only nine weeks in, and this is not a strike, people are all working, the big showrunners are concerned with next episodes, they are under huge deals making a lot of money. When you are not able to pay your mortgage or your kids’ private school tuition, that’s when it hits home.”
Another possible factor in not being able to break the gridlock is the fact that there hasn’t been a breakthrough on either side.
Verve, a non-ATA member, signing the new Code of Conduct did not open the floodgates for other notable agencies to follow, which would’ve given the WGA additional leverage. ATA’s ranks look as united as ever, with no visible cracks. Despite speculation, there haven’t been agents leaving the Big 4 to start new outfits that accept the new Code of Conduct.
On the other hand, while a number of top showrunners have been venting their frustration in private, no A-listers commanding 8-figure overall deals have spoken out publicly to put pressure on the WGA leadership to engage in negotiations, which would’ve given ATA a boost. “They don’t’ like going against the guild,” one source said. For rank-and-file writer-producers, “they are scared of being blacklisted” if they go public with their grievances, another source said.
There has been a divide in opinion among WGA members over the guild leadership’s strategy toward agents. Those who have supported the WGA board and negotiators’ hard line, appear to continue to favor a non-engagement with agencies even after their new proposal.
“Hopefully the WGA won’t be fooled into responding to the ATA’s insulting offer of giving the writers 2% of the agencies back end. Last thing WGA should do is get into a negotiation over some lowball revenue sharing figure,” one writer wrote online earlier this week. Added another, “The agencies can keep trying to sell this as a negotiation, but factually, that’s not what this is, and the board of the WGA, and the writers as a whole seem to be the only ones who get that…. I think they are going to stay fired for quite a little while.”
And then there is the more moderate fraction of the WGA who have been disapproving of the guild leaders’ strong-arming tactic and charged rhetoric towards agents and have been insisting on them returning to the bargaining table.
“It’s obvious that negotiating isn’t a priority for them, because they’re not negotiating,” a showrunner who asked for anonymity, due to fear of reprisals from the Board and Negotiating Committee, said today. “It’s been a week since the ATA made an offer; why aren’t they in a room negotiating face to face, figuring this out? Members didn’t vote for this. We voted for a solution to agency bad practices that was negotiated with agents, not a lot of ultimatums and posturing while writers who don’t have big overalls suffer. The answer is not telling us to get on Twitter, like it’s writers’ fault if we don’t just all go to social media. The Board and Neg Com need to negotiate. Personally, I’m furious.”
For the time being, there are no prospects for bridging that divide, with the guild leadership not revealing their hand and leaving membership pondering what their endgame is. And with the other Big 4 agencies expected to follow CAA in filing responses to the WGA lawsuit over packaging shortly, reps for the agencies and the guild will likely meet soon — if not at the bargaining table then in court.
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