Writers Guild of America West prexy Victoria Riskin has strongly opposed easing restrictions on talent agent ownership and other revamps that had been proposed to SAG’s master franchise agreement.

The letter, sent to the 8,500 WGA West members, signals that Hollywood writers are unlikely to give agents approval of the rule changes that the tenpercenters failed to obtain from SAG. It also backs SAG members who voted against the deal.

Riskin said WGA leaders held off on disclosing their stance until after SAG had completed its negotiations with the Assn. of Talent Agents, citing the sensitivity of talks and a desire to avoid interfering in internal affairs of another union. Leaders of AFTRA approved a revamp of their master franchise agreement three weeks ago while SAG members were still voting.

Though SAG negotiators OK’d the relaxation of several key restrictions in late February, SAG members spurned the deal two weeks ago, leaving Hollywood uncertain over what rules apply to thesps and their agents.

The missive from Riskin, who said she was expressing the views of WGA’s elected leadership, evoked a puzzled response from ATA exec director Karen Stuart.

“ATA believes there may be some misunderstandings set forth in your communication,” Stuart said in a letter to Riskin and WGA West exec director John McLean. “It is really unclear why the WGA publicly issued this statement. ATA and its members remain committed to our obligations as set forth in our franchise agreement with the WGA.”

Riskin said there were no plans to launch negotiations with ATA over the WGA’s master franchise agreement, which was last revised in 1976.

Opposing ownership

“We strongly believe that producers and distributors of films and television programs should not be allowed to become partial owners of talent agencies and, equally, that agents should not be allowed to become partial owners of production and distribution companies as SAG and ATA contemplated,” Riskin wrote. “Suppliers and distributors of movies have a natural interest in keeping talent costs down; they keep more money when they pay writers less.”

The SAG-ATA agreement would have allowed ad agencies, advertisers and indie producers to own up to 20% of a talent agency along with clearing talent agencies to own 20% of production and distribution companies. “It follows that agencies with a financial interest in producing and distributing companies would have a strong incentive to steer writers’ projects to their new partners, rather than selling them to the highest unaffiliated bidder or the independent buyer who is creatively or artistically most appropriate to the work, and that would create a clear conflict of interest we are determined to avoid,” Riskin said.

Conflict cited

Riskin also said it would be “an inescapable conflict” for TV program suppliers such as ad agencies to partner with a talent agency due to the ad agencies’ interest in keeping down talent costs. “Further, if talent agents are permitted partnerships with producing companies, they would become at least in part our employers,” she noted. “If a producer who is a partner in a talent agency hires us, the same producer can also fire us. Will an agent in such a situation defend his client or enforce his partner’s decision?”

Riskin also said the WGA leaders were concerned about a proposal that would have allowed, for the first time, agencies to acquire a “package” position in feature films, noting that such a position has been limited to TV. “Our TV members have in the past complained of occasions when they were not submitted for assignments on which their agents were not given a package commission,” she said. “They have also long protested that huge sums of money are going to agencies in package commissions while their shows’ budgets are frequently starved. They have further complained that the package commission puts talent in a disadvantageous and adversarial position vis-a-vis their own agents, with agents frequently making far more on a project than their own clients.”

Packaging blasted

Fees to a packaging agent could be in the millions of dollars on a single picture, Riskin asserted, adding, “The brake this would put on writer salaries and back-end participations needs no elaboration.”

Riskin also said WGA leaders were concerned about allowing agents to levy commissions on residuals for “scale,” or WGA minimum payments, noting such activity is prohibited in the WGA-ATA Agreement. The prexy also criticized the safeguards in the SAG-ATA to prevent conflict-of-interest situations.

“Our view is that, for writers, the right to be informed, or even to leave the agency, does not compensate for the traditional security our members have always had — that our interests and our agents’ were one and the same, indivisible,” she said. “To give a writer the right to leave a talent agency because of the agent’s conflict of interest is unsatisfactory; it is far better to prevent the conflict from arising in the first place.”

Riskin asserted WGA leaders sympathize with agents undergoing difficult economic times, adding, “Many writers are going through difficult economic times, too, and we believe that solutions can be found which do not pit us against each other.”

The WGA West prexy also said the guild plans to attempt to sign managers to the franchise agreement, noting that such a step will “level the playing field” with agents since managers are largely unrestricted. She gave no timetable for that initiative but announced the guild plans to convene a joint meeting of its Screen and Television Councils along with holding a Town Hall meeting this summer for members.