Chernobyl writer-creator Craig Mazin says he’s “disappointed” with the WGA’s rejection of the Association of Talent Agents’ offer to share the backend profits of packaged TV shows with writers, and that he doesn’t see the guild’s three-month-long standoff ending without a change in leadership. The guild’s election of officers and board members is currently in the works. So far, the only announced presidential candidates are incumbent David A. Goodman and challenger William Schmidt, who opposes the guild’s handling of the ongoing feud.
Mazin made the comments on the latest episode of the Scriptnotes podcast he co-hosts with screenwriter John August, who’s a member of the WGA West’s board of directors and also serves on the guild’s agency negotiating committee. Taped on Friday but released today, the podcast offers an inside-baseball look at the debate that’s going on within the guild about where things stand – and where they may or may not be headed. (Listen to the podcast here.)
The ATA first offered to share 0.8% of the packaging agencies’ backend profits with writers, and in their last offer, upped it to 2%. Guild leaders, however, called it a non-starter. The two sides haven’t met face-to-face in more than a month.
“I am so disappointed with the position that our side took – which was that revenue sharing is a non-starter,” said Mazin, who is running for a seat on the WGA West board. “I don’t know how else to get to an agreement myself. I’m concerned that the agencies make so much money off of packaging fees that they may just look at the numbers and say ‘We make more if we keep packaging directors and actors and never get anything from writers than we would if everybody goes to 10%. In which case, this never ends. And the guild sort of unilaterally excludes its own membership from the four biggest agencies on the planet. Which I’ve said before is unacceptable to me for so many reasons, not the least of which is I think it will permanently damage our status in television, which is well earned and well deserved and hard fought for. So, I’m really disappointed, and I think it’s something that has to change. I don’t think we’re gonna get there with a lot of the same people in charge. I don’t think anything’s gonna happen until an election.”
August said he couldn’t talk about “some stuff that’s ongoing,” but said that the guild’s decision not to pursue revenue-sharing, as the guild has explained, was not based simply on “the moral issue of we’re now trying to share [packaging fees] that we don’t feel should exist. It was also the practical matter of how the hell are we supposed to divvy up this pie – and divvy up this pie not only necessarily among writers, but other folks who would be perhaps entitled to a piece of this packaging fee. It was basically like, kick it all to the WGA to figure out how to disentangle this incredible mass of stuff that would be heading our direction. And it wasn’t clear how soon that money would be coming. It became clear that we were negotiating to enter into a percentage negotiation on this thing to accept a tremendous amount of responsibility for dividing this thing that was probably indivisible. And that there were other topics – that there were other solutions – that were not being seriously considered, because this had been the anointed decision.”
Mazin: “I think it’s our responsibility, if we’re going to demand that our membership fire all their agents that they have relationships with, and empower our guild to negotiate with the agencies, then yeah, it’s their responsibility to do the difficult thing. Of course it’s difficult. If it were easy, this wouldn’t be a negotiation, or at least, the potential for a negotiation. It’s not going to be as difficult as the MBA (the guild’s film and TV contract), which is 800 pages. We have models for divvying pooled amounts of money between writers, directors and actors – residuals, for instance, is an excellent model. And I do think there’s a way to do revenue sharing that restores the ‘you make more when we make more.’ The fact that it simply wasn’t explored – either we don’t have the right people – because our people are saying ‘Oh, golly, the math is too hard’ – or we – and when I say ‘we,’ I mean some people inside the building (the WGA West headquarters) are using that as an excuse. I don’t know how else to get there. I literally don’t. I’ve thought about it for a while – I don’t know how to get there, and I don’t think we will get there any other way. And by the way, we’re leaving money on the table, which I think is really bad for writers. Again, we’ve empowered the union to make a deal for us, and they’re not. Currently, the plan appears to be nothing. Because saying we’re going to negotiate with the individual agencies – they’re not doing that. They’re not gonna do it.”
August: “Again, things I can say and things I can’t say. I think what you saw from [the Abrams Artists Agency] is an attempt to do that. So we’ll see.”
Adam Bold, the chairman of Abrams Artists, reached out to the guild last week, but so far they’ve been unable to come to an agreement. If they do, Abrams would be the first mid-tier ATA member agency to break ranks.
Mazin: “I’m sorry, but they don’t count. And no offense to Abrams, and no offense to their clients, but the Big 4 [agencies] are the ones that we have to figure out how to live with. We have to, or we’re going to be damaged.”
August: “I understand the sense of the necessity of figuring out how we’re gonna deal with the giant elephants in the room. I totally do hear that and understand. I will say that there are members of the negotiating committee and of the board of directors who do understand that, and do have that as a subject of discussion.”
Mazin: “I’m praying for all of us. And when I say ‘praying’ – I don’t pray. I just sit and stew, really is what I do.” [Laughter]
Mazin also said he wasn’t happy about how the guild conducted the vote that led up to the mass firing of agents. “I just feel a little jerked around,” he said. “I think that the vote that we had, the implication was ‘Give us negotiation strength so that we can negotiate a deal,’ and we haven’t negotiated anything. We’ve just said, ‘Nah, no packaging fees.’ So I’m upset. I’m upset, yeah.”
August, however, disagreed with Mazin on the meaning of the vote to implement the guild’s Code of Conduct, which bans packaging fees and agency affiliations with corporately related production entities. On March 31, WGA members voted by a margin of 95.3% to authorize the guild to impose the Code of Conduct.
“I do think it’s a little disingenuous to say that you gave them your vote on moving ahead to give them leverage to make a deal,” August said, “but I think it’s very clear, and there’s good tape to show, that the request for the vote was to honestly vote your conscience and not to vote to give them leverage. That’s the thing that was said repeatedly in the run up to it. So, I can totally understand why you felt you were doing that, and it could have been your intention, but that wasn’t a thing that was asked for. Am I communicating that clearly?”
Mazin: “Yes. I disagree.”
August: “OK. We can disagree on that point.”
August: “I share your frustration and disappointment with this process. I, quite naturally, direct most of my frustration and disappointment with the agencies for not looking at their clients – their former clients – as a valuable thing to be winning back, and I don’t see them trying very hard to do it. A difference I’ve noticed is that…of the major agencies, only Verve was the one who emailed out a survey to all their former clients saying, ‘Hey, what do you actually want?’ And they took the results of what they heard back from their former clients and realized like, ‘Oh, crap, we should probably actually take that seriously.’ And I don’t see the agencies – big and some of the smaller ones too – taking that seriously.”
Mazin: “Alright. I agree with you on that.”
August: “That’s the thing I would hope to see more of in the near period.”
Mazin: “You won’t [laughter]. I don’t foresee that changing on their part. Just so you know, I don’t think that they’re angels in any way, shape or form. To me, they’re a known quantity, in a sense. I’m just pragmatic. I just think, you know, they’re not going to stop being leopards. But we need to figure out how to get them to stop taking bites out of our leg and go back to biting other people on the leg. And any kind of hope that they’re going to find their way towards some more moral position is ultimately going to be fruitless.”
August: “Oh, no, no. I’m not arguing for a moral position. I’m arguing strictly practical. Strictly sort of like, what do the numbers tell us? And what is the opinion of the folks who are trying to represent us as clients? And I don’t see them actually doing that. In the run-up to it, they [the agencies] were doing a lot of outreach meetings trying to survey that opinion, but didn’t do a lot of actual listening to what that opinion would be or what the opinion is right now.”
Mazin: “Yeah, they blew that. They blew it.”