Packaging of TV shows has gotten most of the ink in the WGA’s ongoing battle with Hollywood’s talent agencies. But in a new video, Michele Mulroney and John August, members of the guild’s negotiating committee, contend that agency affiliation to production companies through vertically integrated parent corporations is just as bad for writers. The guild’s new Code of Conduct bans both practices.
“Seventy five percent of writers creating projects at affiliated studios, they’re clients of that agency,” says Mulroney, who also sits on the WGA West’s board of directors. “They’re keeping the work in house. It’s like the old studio system.”
“But kind of worse in a way,” said August, who also serves on the board. “I don’t want a future where we’re negotiating the terms of our MBA (minimum basic agreement) with our own agencies sitting across the table.”
Agency-affiliated production companies, Mulroney said, “Is where your agency owns or co-owns its studio.”
“To me, this is the next step beyond packaging,” August said. “These agencies don’t want 10% of a writer’s salary; they don’t want the 10% of the backend they’d get with packaging. They want 50% to 60% of the profits. They want to own the property. And to do that, they turn you from a client into an employee.”
Endeavor Content is affiliated this way with WME, Wiip is affiliated with CAA, and Civic Center Media is affiliated with UTA. The WGA could have refused to allow those production companies to sign its basic film and TV contract – thus depriving them of access to guild members’ writing services – but chose not to. Instead, it seeks to force the agencies to sever their ties with these companies.
“Members ask us, ‘Why did the guild ever let these companies become signatories?’” Mulroney says on the video (watch it below). “The answer is, we want more buyers, particularly in film. We want these companies to thrive. We just don’t want them to be owned or controlled by agencies.”
“Let’s talk about why agency production companies are bad for screenwriters,” said August, whose film credits include Corpse Bride, Big Fish and Charlie’s Angels. “Let’s say you have a spec script. Your agency is going to take it out on the town. But if they have their own studio, realistically, they’re going to take it there first. Maybe that company wants to buy it. Great! As a client, how do you know your agent is getting the best deal for you? When your agent is also the buyer, that’s the clearest conflict of interest imaginable.”
“Or, maybe the company doesn’t want to buy your spec script,” said Mulroney, whose film credits include Power Rangers and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. “That’s awkward. Your own agency’s affiliated studio is passing on your project. So how exactly is that helping you as a client?”
“Spoiler: It’s not,” August said. “But for screenwriters, it gets even worse when it’s not your original project. These little mini-studios, they’re buying IP (intellectual property). They’re competing with you for the rights on books. If you’re a screenwriter who wants to get hired on that book adaptation, you better be represented by that agency.”
Here is the full text of their conversation (you can watch the video here).
John August: Hi, I’m John August.
Michele Mulroney: And I’m Michele Mulroney.
John August: We’re members of the WGA West Board and the Agency Negotiating Committee.
Michele Mulroney: And we’re both primarily screenwriters. That’s why we wanted to take a few minutes to talk about some of the issues affecting screenwriters in this time when most of us are working without agents.
John August: Some of these issues are new, but some have gone back decades. Over the past two years, we’ve met with hundreds of screenwriters at lunches and meet-ups. And the message has been clear: the Guild needs to be doing more to combat free work and late pay, because our agencies aren’t.
Michele Mulroney: Time after time we’ve heard horror stories of 60-page treatments written for free. Checks that are six months late. And we’d ask, “Where are your agents? Why are they letting this happen?”
John August: It happens because it’s largely invisible. Most screenwriters, we work alone. And we’re afraid to complain, because we might be labeled “difficult.” Difficult is a code word for standing up for yourself.
Michele Mulroney: The thing is, screenwriters are not alone. The Guild can and should be the bad guy on behalf of screenwriters. It can step in to file claims and collect interest on late pay. It can help to fight back against free work. But the Guild can’t enforce contracts it doesn’t see.
John August: That’s why the agency Code of Conduct requires agencies to provide the Guild with our contracts and invoices. Once the Guild has this information, we can protect not only individual screenwriters but all of us. We can identify patterns, see where there are shortfalls in writer income, and shape proposals for future MBA negotiations.
Michele Mulroney: Next, we want to talk about agency-affiliated production companies. This is where your agency owns or co-owns its studio.
John August: To me, this is the next step beyond packaging. These agencies don’t want 10% of a writer’s salary; they don’t want the 10% of the backend they’d get with packaging. They want 50 to 60% of the profits. They want to own the property. And to do that, they turn you from a client into an employee.
Michele Mulroney: Right now, we have Wiip, Endeavor Content, and Civic Center Media. Members ask us, “Why did the Guild ever let these companies become signatories?” The answer is, we want more buyers, particularly in film. We want these companies to thrive. We just don’t want them to be owned or controlled by agencies.
John August: Let’s talk about why agency production companies are bad for screenwriters. Let’s say you have a spec script. Your agency is going to take it out on the town. But if they have their own studio, realistically, they’re going to take it there first.Maybe that company wants to buy it. Great! As a client, how do you know your agent is getting the best deal for you? When your agent is also the buyer, that’s the clearest conflict of interest imaginable.
Michele Mulroney: Or, maybe the company doesn’t want to buy your spec script. That’s awkward. Your own agency’s affiliated studio is passing on your project. So how exactly is that helping you as a client?
John August: Spoiler: It’s not. But for screenwriters, it gets even worse when it’s not your original project. These little mini-studios, they’re buying IP. They’re competing with you for the rights on books. If you’re a screenwriter who wants to get hired on that book adaptation, you better be represented by that agency.
Michele Mulroney: This isn’t a hypothetical, by the way. We checked the receipts. 75% of writers creating projects at affiliated studios, they’re CLIENTS of that agency. They’re keeping the work in house. It’s like the old studio system.
John August: But kind of worse in a way. I don’t want a future where we’re negotiating the terms of our MBA with our own agencies sitting across the table.
Michele Mulroney: Next, let’s talk about indie film. We heard screenwriters loud and clear when you said you wanted us to keep as much of the indie film ecosystem intact as possible.
John August: Our Code of Conduct allows agencies to continue to provide financing and sales services to their clients. It also insists on full transparency and consent, so screenwriters can see any fees the agency would take on their project.
Michele Mulroney: And to clarify a point of confusion in the Code of Conduct: agencies can take these fees—subject to the writer’s approval—on projects with an intended budget under $20 million. For budgets over $20 million they will need a waiver from the Guild after they have consulted with the screenwriter.
John August: This is not meant to be a roadblock, but a reality check. We don’t want studio features masquerading as indies, and we don’t want packaging fees in features to become the kind of problem we are fighting in TV.
Michele Mulroney: So how do we screenwriters navigate this period of displacement? Especially those of us who don’t have managers or robust networks to rely on.
John August: Unlike in TV, screenwriters don’t hire each other. We have to make sure that screenwriters still get read and hired by producers and studio executives. We need make sure pitches and specs still sell. To do that, the Guild has put in place several new tools that can all be accessed via the Guild website.
Michele Mulroney: First, we recently launched the Weekly Feature Memo. It goes out every Friday to a list of around 750 producers and development executives. Writers simply upload the logline for their spec or pitch and then producers can contact you to request your spec, set a pitch meeting or a general.
John August: Next, without an agent, how do producers and executives find you? The Find a Writer directory is the easiest way. Four things you should do today:Check that your credits are accurate. The system will only list your final Guild credits, so if you’d like to include development credits or animation, for now, list them in your bio section.
Upload a writing sample if there’s something you’d like buyers to be able to read. Opt-in to letting producers and executives contact you via email.Finally, mark yourself as “available” if you’re open to work.
Michele Mulroney: Agencies traditionally keep lists of Open Writing Assignments. In the next couple of weeks, the Guild will be launching its own Open Writing Assignment Memo. Here, producers will submit details of any OWA’s, including pieces of IP in search of a writer. The Guild will distribute this to screenwriters in a weekly memo. Then, sort of like the staffing submission system, you will be able to submit yourself for these opportunities. We’ll of course make sure the process is user-friendly and easily sortable on the producers’ end.
John August: Once you’re hired on a project, we’d strongly encourage you to use the Start Button. The Start Button lets the Guild know what screenwriters are working on, and follows up to make sure you’re getting paid on time, and not being asked to do free work. Particularly in this period without agents, the Start Button can be an important tool for tracking your work.
Michele Mulroney: Finally, the Guild will be hosting an Indie Film Panel at the end of the month, featuring fellow Guild members with extensive experience in indie film, along with producers, financiers, and sales and distribution panelists to discuss making features without agencies. So if you’re in the indie world, please join us.
John August: Now, even with all these tools and all of the hustle we’re seeing from screenwriters, anxiety is natural. It’s inevitable. Especially for early-career screenwriters and those without deep networks and connections. So how can we best support our most vulnerable screenwriters during this time?
Michele Mulroney: First, share what you read. Pass along a script to producers and executives you know. Read early-career screenwriters and give them a boost.
John August: If a screenwriting assignment comes across your radar and you can’t take the job, consider sharing the info with other writers or…recommend a less-established screenwriter who might not be on their radar.
Michele Mulroney: Be as generous as you can in offering advice, guidance, contacts and resources. Those of us who have been around for a while have a lot of open doors…Maybe your open doors can open a door for another screenwriter.
John August: And finally, please don’t hesitate to reach out to any member of the Board, Council, or Negotiating Committee. We’re here to listen. We need to hear your ideas, criticisms and concerns. All the tools we’ve talked about today came directly from screenwriters reaching out to us.
Michele Mulroney: One place you can do this is at the May Wednesday evening mixers at the Guild. It’s a chance to mingle, network, and have one-on-one conversations with your elected leadership.
John August: This campaign’s success depends on us all hanging together, staying strong, and helping one another as best we can.
Michele Mulroney: The union is us and we are the union. Thanks for listening.
John August: Thanks.