Less than a day before the Writers Guild of American and the Association of Talent Agents are set to have their first formal meeting in nearly a month, and two weeks before a big Code of Conduct vote that could see scribes exiting their agencies in droves, UTA’s Jeremy Zimmer has admitted to clients that “we aren’t saints.”
As anyone who has ever sat across from an agent knows that last bit is no shocker, but a lot of what Zimmer did have to say Monday would have been if not for the perilous state of scribe affairs.
In a correspondence clearly crafted to get the uber-agencies some PR traction in a war of opinion from which they have been noticeably absent the past week, the UTA CEO was contrite and compassionate. Following a measured email from WME president Ari Greenburg to that agencies’ scribe clients on March 4, Zimmer today was also clearly totally convinced that packaging is not the demon seed the WGA has painted the lucrative practice out to be in advance of the WGA’s March 25 vote.
“Packaging has been around for a long time,” Zimmer told clients in an email sent out less than a hour ago, hoping to counter the prevailing WGA narrative of the system and the stakes of a new franchise agreement. “When we have a lot of talent on a show and the show doesn’t last and achieve some back end, we do not recoup those lost commissions,” he added. “This happens more frequently than the times we make a lot of money on a show, as there are many more shows that don’t make it than there are big hits. But big hits make up for a lot of losses.”
“David Goodman’s video will tell you that the per episode packaging fee more than covers our waived commission on the shows we package,” Zimmer says of the WGA West boss’ on-screen effort of late to members. “That simply isn’t true.”
“The solution to the problems that our clients have with their agents is not to eliminate the choices they have around packaging or affiliate agencies,” Zimmer declares, taking a distinct swing at the potential WGA outcome if packaging isn’t tossed by the likes of UTA, WME, CAA and ICM Partners in the next few weeks. “It is not to fire their agents and hope that the guild, or a yet unidentified agency, is the right partner to help them navigate the world of media consolidation, streaming, and globalization,” the agency exec notes, stressing that his side “are tough businessmen and businesswomen who happen to love artists.”
While the uber-agencies have been conducting relatively low key town halls, face-to-faces and chats with clients the past couple of weeks, the storyteller-packed WGA has been unsurprisingly relentless in crafting a sustained message for maximum impact.
In the past few days alone, horror stories of deals gone south or stillborn because the agency couldn’t get the package it desired have been made public in waves. Railing against “these ruthless, self-serving agents,” the WGA today alone released five new position papers on its key demands for a new franchise agreement with the ATA. On March 8, the guild promised to release a report on March 12 “detailing the Big Four talent agencies’ conflicted business practices that harm Hollywood’s writers.”
The question for UTA’s Zimmer and WME, CAA, ICM Partners and all the other agencies representing writers today is whether their own efforts to reclaim the narrative in this pitched battle is a case of too little, too late – or if they can turn this near runaway train around?
READ JEREMY ZIMMER’S LETTER TO WRITER CLIENTS HERE:
The past few weeks we have seen two groups who have historically been bonded together, writers and their agents, become locked in a war of words about a decades-old practice of packaging and a minutes-old practice of agents investing in content.
What is true is that both sides seem out of touch with the emotions of the other; the “why now” of this conflict.
I began my career representing writers. I’ve represented authors, screenwriters, playwrights and showrunners. My mom is a writer and my grandfather was a writer. So I feel comfortable in saying that writers for the most part are intelligent, educated, well read and generally suspicious. The writers I’ve known were unlikely to accept years and years of poor performance, flaccid negotiation, and dubious ethics. Yet we are to believe that’s exactly what writers have been receiving.
What I think is true is that the top agencies have gotten much bigger. We have developed many more capabilities and it’s not clear to many of our writer clients how, or if, those capabilities serve them. Over the past couple of decades the complexity of the business and the opportunities that have been presented have allowed agencies to decide on a path and pursue it. A few have chosen to diversify broadly and many others have chosen to stay focused in one or two practice areas. Those who chose to diversify grew rapidly and the chasm between “large” and “small” became more and more pronounced. At the same time, many clients required and demanded more. Writers wanted to direct and produce, actors wanted to direct, directors wanted to produce and have access to outside financing, TV actors wanted to do film, and on and on. In order to retain and attract clients the larger agencies had to continue to diversify. We got bigger because the capabilities were attractive to artists looking for diversified careers, clout, and strategy.
But we all still continued to sign and represent writers. That part of the agency was and is one of the most, if not the most, desirable departments to work in. Every year, the mailroom is full of young women and men who aspire to represent writers. When a desk opens up in Motion Picture or TV Lit, the competition is fierce. I say this to support the fact that the agents I observe everyday are representing their writers with passion and commitment. Everyday. When staffing season starts they have this intense look in their eye that doesn’t go away until they’ve exhausted every move they have to staff our clients. Yes we are bigger, but inside the walls this is still a personal service company – agents on phones talking to clients about their work, their ideas, the producer who doesn’t get it, the studio who doesn’t care, or the director who doesn’t understand the material they’re meant to be directing.
Packaging has been around for a long time. Agencies have made a lot of money when shows are successful, and in some cases they have lost money when shows haven’t worked. How do we lose money? We lose money because we waive commission on every actor, writer, director, and in fact anyone we represent, who is working in the show. In some cases that cumulative commission is significantly more than the packaging fee that is collected on a per episode basis. When we have a lot of talent on a show and the show doesn’t last and achieve some back end, we do not recoup those lost commissions. This happens more frequently than the times we make a lot of money on a show, as there are many more shows that don’t make it than there are big hits. But big hits make up for a lot of losses. David Goodman’s video will tell you that the per episode packaging fee more than covers our waived commission on the shows we package. That simply isn’t true.
One thing that is certain is that there is too much unknown or misunderstood about agency practices. This conflict is going to shed light on our practices – the benefits of packaging versus the drawbacks. This conflict will also require that the agencies discuss in detail the why, and the why now, of affiliated companies: What are the benefits? Have there been abuses of duty? How much do agencies own? Is a smaller ownership a significant differentiator, or is a conflict a conflict regardless of the ownership?
Guild leadership wants to take a simple black and white, good or bad, approach to all of this. They deem agencies as bad, and refuse to allow writers, directors, actors, producers, editors, and cinematographers a choice. No choice! That doesn’t seem the best way to make a great decision.
They accuse the ATA of refusing to negotiate. Yet when we talk to them, they communicate simply that there will be no negotiation or even discussion of their proposals regarding packaging or affiliate companies. Who is refusing to negotiate? An agent not wanting to negotiate is like fish not wanting to swim… it’s simply unnatural.
But we owe you more. We owe you data about packaging to show you that their claims are false and our business does benefit clients.
We also owe it to our writers to help deal with the changes in our world. Our agents who work in TV are busier than ever. The short orders, year round development cycle, and multiple buyers require more coverage, more negotiations and year round staffing. We aren’t complaining, but that does explain why agents seem busier than ever.
We need to explain our affiliate companies. Who runs them, how decisions are made, how will writers benefit from working with them and what are the potential conflicts that we need to be aware of and mitigate against.
We need to spend more time talking and less time emailing. We need to help the WGA track residuals and amplify their efforts to collect. We need to have arbitration services for writers to help them understand and monitor the arbitration process.
We need to meet with the WGA well ahead of their collective bargaining session to help them strategize and research the issues that are of concern to writers.
We need to clearly and openly discuss each project that may, or may not, be a package and allow an open decision.
The silver lining of this contentious time is that we will all pay attention to how and why we do what we do. It’s easy to rely on decades old habits and an easy rapport and forget that we all need to understand the exact circumstance of each deal and what the client is paying and getting for our services.
We aren’t saints. We are tough businessmen and businesswomen who happen to love artists. We are so fortunate to work in an industry that allows us to be warriors for ideas and artists. There is true nobility in fighting for the people we represent and sometimes that gets lost.
The solution to the problems that our clients have with their agents is not to eliminate the choices they have around packaging or affiliate agencies. It is not to fire their agents and hope that the guild, or a yet unidentified agency, is the right partner to help them navigate the world of media consolidation, streaming, and globalization.
This fight reminds us all of our mission and our goals: to simply fight for artists and help them do what they love. We are lucky to have our clients’ trust and to wake up every day and fight the good fight. Yet if we have lost some clients’ trust then we need to know why. We don’t want our clients to stay with us out of habit. We want our clients to be part of UTA because they believe that we are doing a good job of helping them manage their career, in good times and bad, as the media business and the world get crazier.
Please take advantage of this time of contemplation to get together with your agents and discuss packaging and how it affects you.
Talk to your writer, actor and director friends, the ones who mirror your ambitions and have elements of the career you want. Ask them how packaging has impacted them either positively or adversely.
Please reach out to us directly with your questions or thoughts at WGAinfo@unitedtalent.com.
We believe that you need to have the ability to choose and that the choice needs to be well informed. Thanks for taking the time to read this and consider what we are saying.
Chief Executive Officer