Screenwriter John August, a member of the WGA’s negotiating committee, says he’s hopeful that the guild and the talent agencies will resume discussions in the next few weeks to break their impasse over a new franchise agreement. Formal negotiations broke off Friday, after which the guild ordered all of its members to fire their agents who refuse to sign its new Code of Conduct.
“What’s gonna happen this next week – the next few weeks – is there’s hopefully gonna be more discussions, hopefully building on some of the small things that were decided on in the room,” August said today on his Scriptnotes podcast.
But August, who also serves on the WGA West’s board of directors, noted: “It’s uncharted territory. We passed the event horizon and so we sort of don’t know what the future holds for our relationship with our agents.”
His comments come as the WGA plans to hold a news conference Wednesday to address the “next step” in its ongoing battle with talent agencies.
Before the talks broke off, the guild and the Association of Talent Agents each made some minor concessions but remain far apart on the key issues: packaging fees and agency ties to affiliated production entities – both of which the guild says are conflicts of interest.
So far, 48 smaller talent agencies have signed the guild’s new Code. “They’re not the big agencies that you would know, but they represent about 300 – or a little bit more – of our members,” he said. “So that’s something.” To date, only one of them – the Pantheon Talent Agency – was an ATA member that broke ranks and signed the Code.
August, whose credits include Big Fish and 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, told fellow podcaster Craig Mazin, a former WGA West board member: “There’s gonna be a lot of speculation about whether more agencies will break off from the ATA to make a deal. I think there’s probably some betting pools about who that would be.”
Said Mazin: “The reasonable prediction would be that after a brief cooling-off period, everybody comes back to the bargaining table and starts talking again. There will be increasing pressure as time goes on. Time always delivers pressure. There are people whose job is to determine for the agencies how much money they are not making per month for every month this goes on.”
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Mazin, whose credits include Chernobyl and The Hangover Part II, said the current walkout is different than the guild’s strikes in the past. “This is a kind of interesting difference between the typical labor action, like the kind where we go on strike,” he said. “When we go on strike, we don’t make money and they can’t get new writing. In this case, we can keep getting hired. We can keep getting money. In fact, there’s a real argument to be made that whatever pain there is, and whatever distribution of pain there is, it is wildly in favor of the writers and wildly in disfavor of the agencies.”
In the end, Mazin said, it might come down to which side can inflict the most pain on the other — and suffer the pain the longest.
“You are gonna have a lot of people, a lot of agents at these agencies, saying, ‘Hey, you’re kind of eliminating my career here,’” he said. “And I have to say to that is that, there is some hope for this all, because when you run a business and you have employees – sure, some people are awful about it, and the larger the corporation, I suppose, the easier it is to be awful – but these are not massive corporations. They all work in a building. And I think seeing people in pain and seeing people scared and seeing people suffering is going to make a difference to the men and women who run these agencies. They don’t want to see this go on forever. And people will get hurt. So the question is, where’s that sweet spot between what they can live with and what they can’t? The truth is, the longer this goes on, the more danger they’re in.”
When talking to other writers, August said he stresses that “this is weird and uncomfortable, and that’s probably good. It kind of needs to be weird and uncomfortable because if this felt normal, we wouldn’t actually solve it. So you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable for a bit while we sort through these situations.”
He also said that he knows several “big screenwriters” who haven’t had agents for years and are enjoying successful careers without them. “One of them hadn’t had an agent for eight years, and he works all the time. So it seems like it would be weird not to have an agent, but there are folks for whom it’s fine.”
Said Mazin: “Well, there’s the creeping danger for the agencies. So the longer this goes on, the greater chance that – not everybody, but a number of writers – will say, ‘I don’t notice the difference here.’ And that’s absolutely an existential threat for the agencies and their relationships with writers.”
Mazin also raised the specter of SAG-AFTRA becoming involved. Pre-merger SAG failed to reach an agreement with the ATA back in 2002 and still doesn’t have a franchise agreement to this day. After the WGA’s members voted overwhelmingly to approve the guild’s new Code of Conduct last month, SAG-AFTRA said: “We congratulate the Writers Guild of America on their successful membership vote and applaud the guild for taking steps in the best interests of their members, We stand with our sister union in the ongoing struggle to protect members in the entertainment industry.”
Mazin said: “The other issue is that the actors are waiting out there. So if SAG — which doesn’t have a signed agreement with the ATA, and hasn’t for a while — so they’ve just kind of punted this, the way I think, in a sense, the writers punted this too [for many years]. But the longer this goes on, the larger the odds are that SAG will do this same thing, and at that point, it’s untenable.
“So one of the tricky points for the agencies is that they can’t simply make a deal and imagine that it is only with us,” he added. “Whatever they do here is going to be extendable, I would imagine, to the actors, and of course, to the directors – all of their clients, really.”
The Directors Guild said Monday: “As our franchise agreement is currently in effect, we are not instructing hyphenate members to terminate their agents with respect to DGA-covered services at the present time.”
“The simple solution, of course,” Mazin laughed, is for the agencies to “simply revert to 10% [commissions]. Whether or not that happens, I don’t know. But I absolutely agree with you that it is uncomfortable – that it is a sign that it’s probably moving in the direction it should be moving – since the entire point of this exercise is that the status quo and the comfort and stability was not worth the price we are paying.
“But on a personal note,” he added, “it’s distressing. It’s distressing to me because I am close with my agents. My main agent has been my agent for well over a decade, and I think the two of us feel a little bit like two brothers on different sides of the Civil War. It’s sad. We don’t like this.”
Even so, Mazin has sent his agent a letter of termination, as did August, who said: “My agent of 20 years – if he needed a kidney, I’m on my way to Cedars. He’s a genuinely good guy. But what we’ve been trying to stress from the beginning is that this isn’t about your personal agent – this is about a system that is broken that needs to get fixed. So hopefully, we can get this system fixed.”