Writers who say they’ve been screwed by their agents are sharing their horror stories with the Writers Guild in hopes the WGA will put an end to agencies being involved in packaging and production deals.
The stories, made public by the guild Monday, come the same day the Association of Talent Agents lashed out at the WGA, claiming the guild has created a “false narrative” about their ongoing negotiations, and accusing the WGA of violating the terms their existing agreement. (Stay tuned for that part of the story.)
Meanwhile, the WGA said in a statement today: “The duty of agents is to represent writers and act in their best interest. Unfortunately, because of the conflicts of interest allowed in the current agreement between WGA and the Association of Talent Agencies, agencies are often doing anything but that. Writers have been sharing their experiences with conflicted representation, showing how it harms us both creatively and economically.”
The guild has been compiling stories from its writer members about their experiences with agencies on packaging, the crux of the sides’ differences in negotiating a new franchise agreement that expires April 6.
“I put an entire show together, but I didn’t want my agency to get the package,” one writer told the guild. “In the end, they held the deal hostage and I had to cave to get the project through. Every network I showed the project to made a bid on my show. I wanted it to go to one network, but my agent thought they’d get a bigger package if they went with another network, so they sold the package to them. My agent told me that there was a bigger penalty with the network they preferred, but I found out later that wasn’t true. Then, a network executive told me that my agency was holding the project hostage with the packaging fee. My agency was not representing my best interest – they were representing theirs.”
The WGA says it will implement its own Code of Conduct if it can’t reach an agreement with the ATA for a new deal. The WGA’s members are expected to approve the new Code on March 25. If a deal isn’t reached, the guild will ask its members to walk away from any agencies that don’t sign on – and that would certainly include the Big Four agencies WMA, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners.
“Before I became a working writer,” another writer told the guild in confidence, “I worked in the packaging department of a major agency. I saw firsthand how packaging influenced the way agents steered their clients’ careers. Problematic situations would come up, like when the agency wanted to move from a partial package to a full package; agents would push writers into packages to maximize the agency’s revenue, regardless of whether it was in the clients’ best interests or even what they wanted.”
“I like working on a TV writing staff, but agents are not interested in representing writers who want to do that,” said another writer. “They’re only interested in writers who develop new projects because that’s how they get a package fee. I went looking for an agent and met with some low level agents at one of the big agencies. They seemed very excited until I said I wanted to work as staff on a show rather than develop. They said, ‘If you’re not into developing, then we’re not interested. It’s not worth it to us.’ ”
“I have had my agent come to me,” a showrunner said, “and say, basically, ‘Since we’re packaging this, we can help you out with some of our clients. This writer has a $20,000 quote, but I think I could get them for $14,000.’ And then the agency would turn around and sell it to that writer by telling them they’re saving money not paying commission, or that the writer will get a title bump in the second year. But it’s because the agency is taking out their packaging fee that there isn’t more room in the budget!”
Claiming that packaging undermines an agency’s incentive to increase a client’s representation, the WGA cited this writer’s experience as proof.
“My current show is not packaged. One of the producers on the show is represented by an agency who assumed they would split the packaging fee. When this other agency found out they wouldn’t be getting a package fee, the agent called to scream at me. He said, ‘We don’t make our money off the 10%.’ He went on to assure me that they ‘earn’ their share of the package, citing the fact that he had gotten his client (not a writer) to accept a fee substantially below his quote. The agent was bragging about harming their own client. That’s what the incentives created by packaging and conflicts of interest do to writers.”
“As part of an overall deal,” said another, “I consulted with a writing team who were represented by a different agency on a pilot they were developing. I made clear to the studio that I didn’t want my name on the show, nor any fees taken off the screen, nor any backend participation as the other writers did all the work and my contributions were minimal. The show ended up getting picked up and was a hit out of the gate. Midway through the first season, my lawyer called and asked me if I knew that my agency had taken backend on the show for themselves. I was surprised and confused. It turns out that my agency had negotiated themselves a half-package on the show based on my involvement, but never told me about it. They represent me and knew I didn’t want to take backend from the writing team, but had no problem taking it for themselves. End result: My agency, which doesn’t represent the writer/creators, owns more of the show than I do.”
Still another said: “A network challenged the formula for a package fee that an agency was insisting upon. The network wanted to lower it to the level charged by another agency – not do away with it. During a yearlong stalemate the agency withheld series pitches to that network from all their clients. No agency client pitched a series to that network that year. Not because the network said they wouldn’t take the pitches; not because the network wasn’t offering enough compensation to the writers. Solely because the agency put its compensation ahead of its clients’ job opportunities, no writers from that agency sold a series to that network. Series that would have sold didn’t. And the clients never knew why.”
“A friend who used to work at one of the Big Four told me the following story,” recounted another writer. “As part of their training, the junior agents were given an in-house course on contract negotiation. They were given a hypothetical deal for a hypothetical client and told to go through a mock negotiation while senior agents watched and gave notes. One of the junior agents was assigned to negotiate a staff writer’s deal on a packaged show. When this junior agent started to present his proposed terms for the deal, one of the senior agents cut in and said: ‘Let me just stop you right there. This is a staff writer on one of our shows. You don’t negotiate these. You take what they offer, say thank you, and move on.’”
“My agency was in the middle of negotiating an overall deal for me with a studio I’d worked with before,” another writer said. “While looking around for projects for the overall deal, I found a book I loved, and learned that my agency was representing the rights. My agency enthusiastically set up a call for me to speak with the author of the book. The author and I had a great conversation. Twenty minutes after that call, my agency called to tell me that the author loved my take and would love for me to adapt the book into a series. Everything seemed great, until the studio was about to put in an offer to option the book, and my agency suddenly told me that there was other interest in the project. As it turned out, that interest was from a producer that had a deal with my agency’s production arm. Even though the studio I was working with put in a slightly higher final offer, and the other producer didn’t have a writer involved, the producer working with my agency wound up winning the bidding war. At one point, my agency suggested that I didn’t have to do that overall deal they’d been negotiating for me—the implication being that I could work with their preferred producer if I backed out of the overall deal. So I didn’t do that show. How does a producer end up with the rights when another studio makes a higher offer that has an experienced writer-showrunner attached? By being the agency-affiliated producer.”
“I’ve run shows in Canada and the US. In Canada, there is no packaging—at all. The relationships between showrunners and agents are entirely different there. In Canada, agents are much more aggressive. They have to fight for every penny. They’re so great at advocating, calling every day to check in. The difference between agents there and agents here has been stunning—I thought they’d be better here because there’s such a big market. I have been shocked to see writers’ quotes and how long it takes to rise through the ranks. Writers are the ones pushing, with no help from agents. It does work up there—it works better for writers when there are no packages.”
Said another: “When I am staffing a show, 40-50% of the staff comes from my agency. But since the agency already has a package on the show they’re not negotiating hard for those writers. I see it every day, every time. As a matter of fact, I feel like the agents are servicing me as the more important client, willing to settle for less for other clients because they know I have to answer to the studio for my writers’ budget. So without a strong push from the agency on behalf of their client, the showrunner can end up as the only one attempting to reward a writer on their staff, while at the same time being brow-beaten by the studio or told they could lose an additional slot for another writer.”
The guild, claiming that “packaging drives the creative process,” cited this writer’s experience.
“Last year, my writing partner and I worked with an actor to develop a series for him to star in. The actor was with another agency. We developed this pitch for him over the course of four months. And then his agent found out and went ballistic, urging his client to abandon us and all the work we’d done to team up instead with various other writers, all of whom were represented by his own agency. When our agent checked in, the actor’s agent was explicit about his motivation: He didn’t want to split the package. Over the next weeks, the actor’s agent did everything he could to stall the pitch and convince his client to drop us for somebody ‘in house.’ Happily, our long history with the actor finally won the day; were it not for that prior relationship, it was quite clear that the whole project and all of our work would have been tossed out to service a package.”
“Packaging limits us creatively,” said another. “In setting up a show, I have access to 25% of the talent in town. When I was meeting with my agency, I mentioned a producer who I really wanted to bring onto a project, but who was represented by another agency. I was told by my agent, ‘I don’t really trust him, I don’t know if it’s a great idea to work with him.’ But when the producer just happened to switch agencies and joined mine, all of a sudden my agent thought it was a great idea. Because of the switch they were on board, and helped make the deal happen. Packaging fees drive decisions, not what’s best for the client or the show.”
The guild offered this as an example of how agency conflicts harm screenwriters. “An agency convinced me to become a client because they wanted access to a feature project idea I had developed. Once the project was under their roof, the agency took control. They pushed me to turn down experienced producers that would have been able to get me paid for the development work, instead insisting that I work with a novice producer that they had a relationship with, without telling me why they were pushing that producer.”
“I had a film project that my agency packaged,” said another, “and the project had been optioned by a buyer that wasn’t represented by my agency, but worked almost exclusively with them. When the time came to extend the option period, the buyer wanted twice as much time for half the money. My agent said to take the offer, that there wasn’t any other interest in the project, which I knew wasn’t true because I’d gotten interest from multiple other parties. I had my lawyer do the negotiation, and was able to get a much better deal. It was clear that the agency was servicing the buyer, rather than trying to get me the best deal.”
Claiming that agencies are “not transparent” in their dealings with their clients, the WGA offered this example.
“My agency did nothing to help me get my project going. They didn’t even set the meeting at the company I sold my show to,” a writer said. “I had no idea it was packaged until I saw the line item in my budget and I was totally taken aback. I had been struggling to figure out how I could hire more writers and compensate them fairly and the agency packaging fee could have paid for three more writers. My budget was stretched so thin that I could only hire a skeleton crew and shoot in a warehouse with questionable conditions. It was so bad that I cut my own fees to put money on the screen and better take care of my crew. And as I was doing this, I found out from the studio that my agency had been calling to improve their own compensation. While I was working more for less, the agency wanted a bigger packaging fee.”
“My writing partner and I were brought on to rewrite a pre-existing script,” said another, “and ended up getting ‘co-created by’ credit when the series got picked up. When we were well into the writers’ room and prep, we found out from a writer (also represented by our agency) that the show was packaged. I had no idea that my agency was taking a packaging fee – as they were still taking commission out of my checks. When I asked my agency about it, they claimed ‘Oh, we return the commission once production ends’ or something to that effect, but I have no idea what would have happened if I hadn’t inquired about it. I thought it was strange that no one bothered to inform their clients that they were taking a packaging fee in the first place.”