In the aftermath of the WGA severing ties with the Association of Talent Agents and sending out 7,000 emails from members firing their agents, writers are getting used to a new and potentially uncertain reality.
While firmly supporting their guild, many wonder exactly what WGA leadership’s endgame is in the standoff with the ATA over agency packaging and affiliated production companies. They have questions about the lawsuit filed by WGA, and question whether it was necessary to bring brass knuckles to the negotiating table with the agents.
Writers have issues with the guild’s changing stance on firing agents and alleged strong-arming tactics used to get writers to sign those letters. And writers want to know what will happen to those who didn’t send termination letters to their agents.
We got WGA West president David Goodman to address all these questions and more.
In a format similar to a town hall, I present the problems as described to me by respected writer-producers, followed by Goodman’s responses in full.
None of the showrunners I have spoken with for this story dispute the fundamental issues the WGA leadership is tackling, the serious conflict of interest embedded in the often-abused practice of packaging as well as agencies’ foray into producing, which is deemed particularly egregious. “How can your employer (on the production side) also represent you (on the agency side) and negotiate with your interest in mind?” one showrunner lamented in a familiar refrain.
But those showrunners also point critically at those running the guild: “There are many people at every level, including people who are very successful, who have been noting [that] what the leadership has been saying and doing didn’t match and have been questioning their strategy,” one showrunner said.
In particular, they have issues with WGA leadership’s campaign to convince members to vote “yes” in support of a new Code of Conduct that eliminates packaging and affiliate production. Showrunners told me that Goodman had “assured writers that they would never be required to e-fire their agents” and that an overwhelming “yes” vote would be used for leverage in bargaining negotiations with the ATA to get a favorable deal.
But once the guild’s membership delivered the 95.3% vote in support of the new code, writers say the WGA leadership made a turn and told the constituency that it’s mandatory they e-sign letters firing their agents.
SEAL Team showrunner John Glenn provided a similar account in an April 16 letter to Goodman, which surfaced this week. “I feel lied to and I am angry about it,” Glenn wrote. “I went to a meeting hosted by the Guild at the W Hotel a few months ago. A group of perhaps 100 showrunners and creators were told explicitly this action would not require us to fire our agents directly. Now we’re being aggressively asked to do just that.”
According to multiple sources, the WGA didn’t have the legal right to require members to e-sign the letters. The sources tell me that several showrunners brought up the issue with the guild’s legal counsel, who admitted that the WGA had no authority to do so.
Here is Goodman’s response:
“During the run up to the vote, many members asked the Guild whether they would have to directly fire their individual agents, and many said they preferred to do so through the Guild. We said we would make that option available. Our legal counsel then determined that the best protection for writers against any future potential commission disputes was to have every individual terminate their agreement in writing. The WGAW Board and WGAE Council determined it made the most sense to mandate the terminations come through the Guild via the e-sign form. The Board and Council are the governing bodies of the WGA, and one of their obligations was to interpret the working rules. That is their right and their duty. That wasn’t fun — we understand that — but our members understood the rationale and complied in overwhelming numbers.”
I have heard different accounts of how members had been convinced to sign their letters. Some say they were encouraged to do it without pressure exerted on them by strike captains, who were courteous and available to answer questions. But I also heard stories of writers being pressured to sign with suggestions that noncompliance could lead to potentially losing health insurance or pension. Sources told me of writers who have cancer or are pregnant and felt they had no choice.
Glenn shared a similar experience in his letter. “If I’m being honest, there’s a strange, somewhat McCarthy-like tone to it all that I find repulsive,” he wrote. “The idea of “trials,” words like “compliance,” and threats that “discipline” will be visited upon dissenting members are things I instinctively rage against. If the WGA leadership cannot be consistent with a simple and transparent promise made to its members from the word “go,” why should I trust this process now? Why trust when I feel lied to and now threatened?” (Glenn eventually signed a termination letter.)
Goodman vehemently denied the use of coercive methods.
“I have not heard this. Are you reporting this with an actual quote, or are you just repeating a rumor? We’ve never told captains to talk to members this way, but you report it as if it’s a fact. There never was and never will be any directive to speak to members this way, and any writer who feels they’ve been treated harshly by anyone in this campaign should contact the Guild, or me directly. It’s easy to make false claims; if anyone has an actual claim of some misbehavior, the Guild and I will take it seriously. There have been none; that’s not a surprise with a 95+% vote.”
For the record, a number of the cited above accounts from writers who say they have been subjected to such pressure were first-hand or corroborated by sources.
In the end, the WGA on April 22 announced that more than 7,000 writers had signed termination form letters out of 8,800 current members with an agent. Regarding the 1,800 who hadn’t, “most of the writers who haven’t yet signed termination letters are retirees or no longer actively working,” the guild said in unveiling the results. The comment drew a strong reaction from several established writer-producers who had opted not to sign. I know of at least a dozen to two dozen working writer-showrunners, some of them established and successful, who have not fired their agents, one of whom called the qualification by the guild “insulting.” The WGA said that it stands by its statement.
What will happen to those hundreds of writers who did not fire their agents? Goodman had previously dismissed the notion of “tribunals,” though the guild’s rules call for such members to “be subject to discipline,” including via disciplinary trials. Will writers who did not e-fire their agents be sanctioned by the WGA?
“The Guild is still early in the process of collecting e-sign letters and contacting hard-to-reach writers. There’s no plan to sanction any member who has not yet e-signed, and any decision to do so would be made by the WGAW Board, or WGAE Council in accordance with each Guild’s constitution. Member adherence to Working Rule 23, requiring that writers may only be represented by agencies that are signatory to the Code of Conduct, has been a total success.”
Another concern I have heard consistently from writers: they say they are put off by the WGA leadership’s rhetoric and aggressive language/name-calling toward agencies and agents, which may have contributed to the escalation of the conflict between the guild and the ATA.
The WGA has publicly called agencies cartels and there have been references to criminals and racketeers. The qualifications angered the agency side, creating a resentment that, among other factors, continues to keep agents from initiating a restart of negotiations.
“A lot of that language was meant to land a punch but it was hurtful (to agents),” one veteran showrunner said. “Sometimes it’s harder to walk back from words than from actions.”
Goodman defended the use of harsh qualifications and insisted that comparing agencies to criminal organizations was warranted.
“We have been very careful to differentiate between individual agents and agencies as corporate structures. There was no avoiding some harsh truths: some of the agencies have been, and are engaged in illegal activities, and have not fulfilled their fiduciary duties to their clients. That’s not rhetoric or name calling, it’s telling the truth. And I think the escalation was caused by the agencies completely dismissing our concerns. That’s what got writers upset.”
Still, there was a noticeable toning down in the rhetoric in the latest missive from the guild to its members, in the form of a 16-minute video address by WGA Negotiating Committee co-chair and former WGA West president Chris Keyser on Wednesday, which went hard after the agencies over packaging and affiliate production while remaining civil.
Writers I have spoken with also had question(s) about the WGA’s strategy during the negotiations with the ATA. The WGA members are claiming that during the campaign before the membership vote on the new Code of Conduct, they were told an overwhelming “yes” vote would be used as leverage in negotiations. The writers say that they felt let down when no negotiations took place between the vote (whose results were announced on March 31) and the franchise agreement’s original April 6 expiration date, with several negotiating committee members reportedly out of the country during that period, some of them on spring break with their kids.
“We assumed there would be frantic negotiations going on,” one showrunner said.
The only meeting between the two sides that week was the emergency summit initiated by top agents hours before the deadline to negotiate a weeklong extension. There were four negotiating sessions in the extra week before talks broke off without a new agreement.
“I didn’t say that, in fact I said the opposite: that if a member didn’t want the code imposed, they should vote no. (If you’d like, I can show you the video of me saying that.) I said that a vote yes that isn’t real gives only phony leverage; I said repeatedly I wanted an honest vote. And it wasn’t the Guild’s fault that there was little progress made post-expiration date. The agencies asked us for an extension, and we agreed. The Committee met with the ATA on four days during that final week, and even then the agencies refused to make concrete proposals that addressed the Guild’s concerns. Finally, one of the reasons we have so many members on the Negotiating Committee is we can’t all be there all the time because we have full time jobs as writers. This is a volunteer position, and it’s offensive to me that anyone would criticize the dedication of these writers to serving the Guild.”
Another strategy-related question raised by writers: Some questioned an appeal they say Goodman had made earlier this year for members to close outstanding deals before the end of the franchise agreement. Members argue the slew of blockbuster overall deals closed over the past few months worth $1 billion-plus combined put so much money in the coffers of the major talent agencies that they have little incentive to rush back to the negotiating table.
Here is what Goodman had to say:
“Frankly, neither agencies nor writers needed me to tell them to finish deals before termination. This is a long-term strategy. Our legal position is that non-franchised agencies cannot package new projects for writers closed after April 13 even under an over-all deal. But your question seems to imply that it’s the agencies who don’t want to negotiate, so if you think that’s the case maybe stop asking the WGA why we aren’t negotiating.”
Then there was the final negotiating session, which lasted a little over an hour. In it, the ATA presented its written proposal with the 1% (0.8%) packaging fee sharing (5% with the collective bargaining agreement that would cover DGA and SAG-AFTRA), and WGA West executive director David Young made a speech, repeating the criminal activity accusations against the agencies. Some members question why the WGA did not try to counter and negotiate even if the initial offer was so low. (I hear Young did “counter” in the room, scoffing at the ATA’s proposal by saying, “We want 90% of all packaging fees.”) Some writers feel that with the ATA offer gone, the guild will need to start from scratch when the two sides eventually return to the table.
Goodman said “I think 1% is starting from scratch,” adding:
We’ve been clear: the proposal of .8% to writers of backend of new series — more than one year after the expiration was given, and almost a week after promises of big moves by the agencies if the deadline was extended — in no way realigns agency incentives with those of writers 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.
Shortly after the WGA enforced its new Code of Conduct despite most agencies’ refusal to sign it, the guild filed a lawsuit against the Big 4 agencies over packaging. Several writers say that they felt blindsided to see, alongside the guild, names of members of the negotiating committee and other showrunners as plaintiffs who could potentially be entitled to millions of dollars if the case is won. Some writers call that a potential conflict of interest, noting the irony as the WGA’s battle is over conflict- of-interest practices at the agencies.
Goodman hailed showrunners putting their names on the lawsuit as an act of bravery, not a money grab.
“The only irony is that anyone thinks the named plaintiffs are motivated by money. It was incredibly difficult to find plaintiffs willing to put their names on the lawsuit, and I think everyone who works in Hollywood understands why: fear of retaliation by the agencies. In the end, we had to rely mostly on people already publicly identified with the campaign to join as plaintiffs. They stepped forward and it frankly upsets me that they are now being pilloried by writers they are trying to represent. The plaintiffs stepped forward to generate additional leverage to get a deal for all writers.”
I spoke with a number of writers for this story, none of whom would go on the record out of fear of retribution. They lament that the dialogue within the guild had gotten so charged, attempts at online conversations often escalate into bullying, threats and vitriol. As a result, in February, a showrunner launched a private online forum. In it, writers are free to share their opinions and feelings without being judged; a no-bullying policy is strictly enforced.
The platform, which a writer can join after being invited by a current member, has grown by leaps and bounds after the WGA and ATA’s negotiations broke off and their franchise agreement expired; membership is now at about 500.
Several writers spoke to me about an alleged climate of fear they claimed was instilled by the current guild leadership, with some suggesting that the leadership targets those who ask questions and have a different opinion. I asked Goodman to address those concerns and how he and his team plan to make the relationship with members more open where differing views about the path forward can be shared freely.
“This is upsetting because it is an accusation without an example. No one has presented us with one instance where the Guild as a whole or an individual leader has threatened anyone, and if you have an example I need to hear it. We have listened and responded to all of those who express dissent, we have done nothing to suppress it. If members have an example of leadership discouraging or disparaging dissent please let us know.”
The WGA leadership has been receptive; several writers with qualms about the guild’s ATA strategy told me that they have been in regular communication with Goodman and members of the Negotiating Committee who have done a number of impromptu meetings with concerned members on a very short notice. And while no showrunners I spoke with provided instances where guild leaders have personally discouraged dissent, the writers believe that there could be a stronger effort to foster tolerance toward opposing views among the guild membership. After writer-playwright Jon Robin Baitz publicly declared he would not fire his agents, criticizing the current WGA’s leadership’s “scorched earth policy,” he was harassed online; Someone even altered his Wikipedia page to add “scab” to his occupation. It was not an isolated incident.
The ATA standoff appears to have opened a divide between mostly rank-and file-writers, who are “all in,” standing firmly behind the guild leadership and its strategy, and higher-level showrunners, who have longer — and closer — relationships with their agents, whose interests are more aligned with agencies’ and who have been more critical of the guild’s leaders and their strategy.
In Keyser’s video message yesterday, he appeared to address the membership divide over the ongoing battle with agents, calling for greater tolerance.
“So long as everyone who is part of this union abides by Guild rules, which is our obligation, the exercise of our right to disagree during internal debate about tactics and strategy is completely OK,” Keyser said. “So, let’s disagree with each other, but respect each other. Our battle — even for those who would prefer there not be one — is with the agencies — not with ourselves.”
Such statements amid a growing undercurrent of dissent within the guild could help bring dissenters out of the shadows. “The guild is fundamentally a democratic institution; if writers who are in disagreement start to speak up in grater numbers, things will have to change,” one showrunner said.
There had been chatter about writers within the internal opposition mounting an effort to collect signature in an attempt to recall the current WGA leadership. (In his letter, Baitz also stated, “I believe it is time for a new kind of leadership to take the helm at the WGA”.) A WGA expert told me a recall is considered unrealistic as it is a very lengthy process that can take months.
A seasoned WGA member shared a concern that a tough, drawn-out war with the agencies may exhaust the membership as the guild heads toward an even more crucial 2020 negotiation with the studios. They are expected to tackle big issues including revising the residual payments mechanism to account for additional airings as distribution becomes more windowed on multiple platforms.
“Our firm belief is that without agencies representing writers without conflicts, many gains made in the MBA over the past years have been undermined. The issues of minimum compensation and overscale compensation are linked — we’ve seen the erosion of overscale terms because we neglected to look at the agency agreement for 46 years. This is long overdue. As for 2020, we will be in great shape: the vast majority of members that I speak to are in this for the long haul and believe the aim to end the conflicted business practices of the agencies will benefit them and future generations of writers.”
Finally, what might be the biggest question many writers have on their minds: What is the WGA’s endgame? Does the guild envision a future without agents?
“No, of course not. There will always be people who understand the value of representing writers as agents. Our goal is a future with agencies willing to align their interests with the writers they represent.”
Is the guild prepared for a possible lengthy legal battle?
“Yes we are prepared, although of course we would prefer not to have to do so.”
What will it take for the WGA to return to the bargaining table, and how much room for compromise is there on the two big issues — packaging fees or affiliate production?
“Yes, of course the WGA is open to returning to the bargaining table, when the agencies make a proposal that fully aligns their interests with those of writers. So far, they have made no such proposal. If compromise means a true alignment of agency interests with those of writers, great. But if compromise means that agencies remain conflicted and hide from us all of the money they make from representing writers, then no. This idea that the only way to achieve bargaining goals is to constantly negotiate is not only false, it is counterproductive. There’s no benefit to just ‘talking’ when there is truly an impasse. Our goal is to get the best possible deal for writers.
Bargaining takes place both at the table in formal sessions, and away from the table through pressure that eventually forces one or both parties to be willing to change positions sufficiently to break an impasse. The Guild remains willing to consider meaningful proposals from the agencies, though the parties were far apart when negotiations broke off. And it would be irresponsible for me to talk specifically about bargaining strategy, including compromise and end games — that would undermine our bargaining agenda.”
The current status of the standoff was handicapped for me by a WGA veteran who has been involved in previous guild negotiations. After the WGA made its three moves — enforcing the new Code of Conduct, sending the termination letters to agencies and filing a lawsuit against the Big 4 — the writer-producer thinks the next move needs to be made by the ATA. The person was encouraged that the ATA did not jump in immediately and countersue after the WGA filed its complaint, saying such a quick move would’ve delayed further a potential return to the negotiating table.
That return to the table will happen eventually, the veteran said.
“We have to come to a resolution; the relationship between agents and their client is very important to both sides,” the person said.