The first agentless TV staffing season is underway, a process that has showcased writer solidarity as well as ingenuity with the grassroots #WGAStaffingBoost campaign. As the first staffing success stories start to emerge, the industry also braces for what comes next, with pitch season looming and networks and studios potentially facing a choice that could tip the scales in the current impasse between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents.
While some showrunners still rely primarily on personal recommendations by colleagues and studio executives, there have been cases of unknown, unconnected, up-and-coming writers landing staff writing jobs through the WGA’s Staffing Submission System or #WGAStaffingBoost.
The WGA has not responded to requests for information regarding how many of the more than 1,000 writers who have submitted themselves for staffing through the system have landed jobs, though Julie Plec, executive producer/showrunner of the CW’s drama Legacies, announced one such hire on Twitter.
“Cynthia Adarkwa will be joining the Legacies writing team,” she wrote. “How did we find her, you ask? My office SCOURED THE STAFFING GRID. We read her, she met w/us and we hired her. Boom.” (You can see the tweet under this story.)
The process has not been without its challenges. The Staffing Submission System, designed to help guild members find jobs, has raised some concerns, with legal experts suggesting it may run afoul of the California Fair Employment & Housing Act with its request for writers to identify by race and gender.
For the most part, however, writers and studios have been able to navigate staffing season. Now they are bracing for what comes next: pitching and selling a show without an agent.
“We’re entering two kinds of terra incognita,” said showrunner Michael Seitzman (Code Black, Quantico, The Rainmaker/Rogue Lawyer for Hulu, Book of Enchantments for Disney+). “The first is prior to any sale. How will writers, now without agents and who don’t have a manager, will go about setting up their own pitch meetings with pods, studios, and networks.”
While the broadcast networks are in the thick of pre-upfronts, focused on putting their fall lineups together, cable networks and streamers are open for business. I hear writers have started calling network executives to self-pitch their projects and that some showrunners have been pitching series on behalf of showrunner friends. That is similar to showrunners taking over tasks normally performed by agents during the current staffing season, like putting together lists of writer recommendations for colleagues.
I’ve also heard of producers reaching out directly to writers about possible pitch ideas.
While networks and studios are navigating how to organize the taking of incoming pitches, what comes after pitches are verbally bought will presents an even bigger challenge.
“The second (kind of terra incognita) is after sale, which is a much more salient issue to the larger battle between the WGA and ATA,” Seitzman said. “Specifically, what will the studios do with the money heretofore known as the packaging fee? If they grant any of that money to the writers, they’re confirming the WGA position — that removing the packaging fee will immediately benefit writers. If they keep that money for themselves, they’re confirming the ATA position — that nothing will change for writers. We’re just weeks away from that marketplace opening up and the decision by the studios will have an immediate material effect on the landscape of this battle.”
While writers have always been at the heart of a “package,” there also is an option for the studios to continue to pay agencies packaging fees, accepting actors and directors as sufficient package-able elements. If shows sold solely on an idea or a script by an agentless writer are not packaged, but those with talent and or a director on board get a packaging fee based on those auspices, that also would likely benefit ATA’s stance.
This puts studios and networks in a no-win situation as unwilling arbiters in a battle they don’t want any part of. From what I hear, TV executives don’t have plans yet how they will handle dealmaking on new shows where the writer(s) don’t have an agent. Right now, all are hoping that by the time they must cross that bridge — packaging fees are not being paid until a show is produced — the writers and their agents will have reconciled. If that does not happen within a couple of months, TV networks and studios will have to reluctantly take control of the balance of power between the WGA and ATA, possibly helping speed up a resolution based on heir decision about what to do with the money that would’ve been put aside for packaging fees.