Now that Verve has signed the WGA’s Agency Code of Conduct, speculation has begun about which mid-size agency will be next to sign.
On Thursday, David Gersh, co-president of The Gersh Agency, denied rumors that his company might be next. “The agency has not engaged in any conversations with the WGA and continues to be represented by the ATA,” he told Deadline. And now Adam Bold, the new chairman and co-owner of the Abrams Artists Agency, says he won’t sign the Code either.
“Will I sign the Code? No,” Bold said in an interview. “The WGA would love to make a big deal of Verve, but it actually is a company-specific situation. Their expense structure is kind of out of whack. They took a calculated bet on just being a lit agency. At Abrams Artists Agency, we’re doing OK because we don’t have any debt and we have a diversified business. We still have digital and influencers and voice-over artists and other parts of our business where income is coming in. But with Verve, that’s all they had. So I don‘t perceive this as a crack in the ATA.”
Bold said that Abrams Artists has about 75 agents, but only about a dozen of them are lit agents. “I have told our lit agents that we will pay them until this is resolved,” he said.
Karen Stuart, executive director of the Association of Talent Agents, told her member-agencies Thursday: “With this move, Verve clients will be robbed of choice in their own financial decisions – their options will now be dictated by the guild. Furthermore, Verve has locked itself into a static business model that handcuffs their ability to pursue new creative opportunities for their clients in the evolving media landscape.
“We must remain strong and united,” she said. “Our unity speaks volumes to the WGA leadership.”
Abrams Artists, unlike Verve, is a member of the Association of Talent Agents, and so far, the only ATA member agency that’s signed the Code is Pantheon, a smaller agency that doesn’t represent many writers.
“I agree with many of the things that are in the Code that are reasonable,” Bold said, “but there are also many things in there that are not good for writers – like having to disclose how much everybody earns. Maybe you would not like your co-worker to know how much you get paid. We have a legal and fiduciary duty to do what’s best for our clients, but I don’t think the WGA is the appropriate body to be the supervisor of that.”
The Code requires agencies to provide writers’ contracts, invoices and deal memos to the WGA and allows auditing, but the guild says that none of that information will be made available to other writers or agents. “The guild shall use reasonable efforts to maintain the confidentiality of the information and such efforts shall in no event be less than the efforts the guild uses to protect its own confidential information,” the Code says. “The guild shall maintain and use such information subject to its duty of fair representation, provided that nothing…shall prohibit the guild from aggregating the data in a manner that does not disclose the confidential information of a particular writer.”
The cornerstone of the Code is its ban on packaging fees and agency-affiliated production companies, which the guild says are blatant conflicts of interest to their fiduciary duty to clients.
Bold, who is new to the agenting business – he was part of an investment group that bought Abrams Artists in September – said: “We want to be fierce advocates for our clients. Everything has to answer the question: Is this good for the client?”
He added: “Parts of packages have been good for writers, but some have at least the appearance of a conflict, and sometimes there’s a real conflict of interest. Clearly, if they put together a package and the client doesn’t know what the agency is getting out of the deal, it makes you to wonder. But there are packages where you get to put together a group of people who can collaborate and work together, who have chemistry together, which increases the odds of it being successful. But if you have an agency that’s only interested in what’s good for them, then you have a conflict. And the only way you can take care of that is through transparency. The only people who are afraid of disclosure are people who have done shady stuff.
“There needs to be transparency,” he said, “and a greater sharing of fees. I can’t speak for the union, but the rank-and-file friends of mine who are writers think it should be fair and there should be transparency. When you don’t know all the facts, it can at least create a question about a conflict. When you know all the facts, it reduces that.”
Just before talks with the guild broke off last month, the ATA offered to share 0.8% of its packaging fees with writers. The WGA, however, scoffed at that lowball figure but refused to say what it thought a fair share would be. “If you put your house on the market for a million dollars and a buyer offered you eight thousand dollars for it, you would not counter,” said Chris Keyser, co-chair of the guild’s negotiating committee. “We will not counter. We will not be bullied – not by them – not by anyone who insists that we prove, again and again, that we are open to compromise – into negotiating with ourselves.”
Bold wouldn’t say what he thinks would be a fair share either but noted that “second-tier agencies like Abrams Artists Agency, Paradigm, APA and Gersh don’t initiate packaging. We catch the wake of the big companies’ packages. Eighty nine percent of packaging is done by the large agencies. It’s not that a package is evil in itself, but if you have a bad agent, a package can be bad. The first rule of Abrams Artists is that everything has to be good for the client, and a package can be good for the client.”
The ATA has also offered to be more transparent about packaging fees, but transparency doesn’t cut it with the WGA. In February, WGA West president David A. Goodman said: “The agencies have floated a compromise wherein their packaging deals will be transparent and that they will never make more than the showrunner on the back end participation. Here’s the problem with stopping at transparency. First, it takes the position that as long as it’s out in the open, it’s okay that an agency that negotiates the pilot deal for its client makes the same backend as a guild member who wrote the pilot and produced 60 or 100 episodes. That’s absurd. And what will transparency do for TV writers who are not showrunners? The agencies’ money will still come from the studio profits, not from getting writers more money. We would be leaving in place a system that has completely severed the connection between the interests of the agencies and any TV writer who is not called showrunner. And transparency does nothing for feature writers other than confirm their agency is double dipping and probably making more than they are from the film.”
Bold also believes that agency affiliations with related production companies can also be good for writers as long as it’s transparent. “It may give a project a better chance of being greenlit and going to series instead of being shelved,” he said. “It’s not that affiliated is evil in itself; it’s only evil if the agency is using it to their benefit and to the detriment of the client.
“We have the unique opportunity to entertain and delight and tell stories to people all over the world,” he added. “On the other hand, it’s a business. And just as the writers deserve to be paid for what they do, we as agents add value to our clients’ financials and careers. We deserve to be paid for the value we provide. If on the other hand, a writer or an actor or director has an agent who doesn’t add value, they should fire them. Either we add value or we don’t.”
Bold feels that all these differences can only be resolved if the WGA and the Association of Talent Agents return to the bargaining table.
“I would love to see them get back to the bargaining table,” he said. “As agents, first and foremost responsibility is to do what’s best for our clients, and the WGA’s responsibility is to do what’s best for their members. When people dig in, that’s not good for anybody, is it? I don’t think so. They need to get back to a place where they can talk.”
ATA’s Stuart, meanwhile, told her members Thursday that “while the ball on negotiations remains firmly in the WGA’s court, our negotiating committee continues to meet every week, and remains committed to bringing about stability in our industry.”