Outspoken playwright and TV writer Jon Robin Baitz has become the first WGA member to openly challenge the guild’s directive that members fire their talent agents.
Baitz penned a letter to WGA leaders explaining his refusal to sever ties with his representatives at CAA, praising Bryan Lourd, Joe Cohen and others for sticking by him during bad times including after the 2007-2008 strike. He credited Cohen with guiding him into the lucrative career as a TV writer and series creator.
“He believed I could do it, could have my own show, could make compelling and viable TV. He never stopped believing in me and because of that, I never gave up. And I love him,” Baitz wrote.
Baitz, known for ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters” and numerous plays, also slams the WGA for what he describes as excessive rhetoric that WGA has used in communicating with its members on the issues at stake in the guild’s agency franchise negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents.
Baitz accused the guild of having “negotiated its legitimate concerns in a manner so bellicose, so histrionic, so lacking in scale and perspective, that in my opinion, you have betrayed the interests of the membership.”
He expressly calls for a change in the leadership style at the guild. “It is time for a mature, measured, and considered philosophy, one that does not depend on the politics of divisiveness to which we’ve become all-too accustomed,” Baitz wrote. “It is time for grown-ups who do not cast the entire business into chaos and darkness. It is time for a leadership that sees the vast changes occurring in the business, and acknowledges that writers are not surrounded by perpetual enemies.”
Reps for the WGA West did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.
Baitz is the exception to the overwhelming level of support the guild has generated among members with its campaign to reform the rules that govern agency representation of WGA members, including a ban on agencies taking packaging fees and engaging with writer clients in affiliated production deals. The Association of Talent Agents, which reps the majority of significant talent agencies, has balked at the WGA’s attempted overhaul. The WGA on April 12 told its members to sever ties with agents that refuse to adhere to the guild’s newly implemented Agency Code of Conduct.
Starting Friday night, a steady stream of prominent showrunners and screenwriters began sharing their agency termination letters and expressing solidarity with the guild. Many have also expressed their own regret and appreciation for long-serving and hard-working representatives. There’s known to be a number of prominent showrunners who have put some pressure on the guild to find a solution to the agency scramble, but so far only Baitz has been vocal in a public way with his criticism.
One top agent quipped on Monday that the social media posts from writers declaring their regret at having to fire longtime dedicated representatives “was starting to sound a lot like ‘thoughts and prayers.’ ”
Here is Baitz’s letter in full:
To the Guild Leadership:
I am deeply saddened to say I cannot go along with your insistence that I fire my agents at CAA. This, despite my fervent belief in the WGA’s mission and accomplishments.
First, I have made a deal with WIIP, a studio owned in part by CAA. If I were to fire them, I would be a hypocrite, which is something I try very hard to avoid in life, with admittedly mixed results. Let me point out, my deal at WIIP for Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, which has an on-air order of 8 episodes from Amazon, is the best I have ever made. (You claim these lucrative deals are “loss leaders”, based on I know not what.) I, in turn, have hired three members of the WGA at producer levels, and am making a writer’s assistant, a female diversity hire, into a staff writer during the first order. But more importantly, I have to be honest about my relationship with my agents, which I think isn’t all that unusual.
Bryan Lourd and I have been friends for over thirty-five years. Like many writers and their reps, our friendship began well before we both had achieved whatever level of success we have. I met him when he was starting out, and I was a young LA playwright represented by Michael Peretzian and George Lane, who were William Morris agents at the time. They both eventually became agents at CAA.
Brian Siberell at CAA became my agent in 2000, but we first met in 1986 when George Lane introduced us. Brian worked at HBO. I was a poor playwright, and he bought a script from me, and it paid for my existence in NY for over a year. I think it was a $27,000 deal. Again, I do not think it is all that unusual to have this kind of deeply filled personal history with one’s agent.
In 2002, Joe Cohen at CAA asked me to think about working in TV. Aaron Sorkin had asked me to write an episode of West Wing, which I did, and which was shot pretty much word-for-word. Joe made that deal for many times the WGA minimum. I loved the work. In 2006, he made a deal for me to write a pilot for ABC, based on a pitch about an American family struggling with legacy, privilege, and their own history and ideological clashes. He saw me through Brothers & Sisters, and he was honest, forthright, kind and straight-shooting, even when I created a situation that could only result in my being fired from my own show. He was patient with me and understanding. He also taught me to think in terms of TV scripts. He believed I could do it, could have my own show, could make compelling and viable TV. He never stopped believing in me and because of that, I never gave up. And I love him.
ABC/Disney force-majeured me out of my own show in the wake of the WGA strike in 07/08, during which I was outspoken on behalf of the goals we were trying to achieve. The Guild pretty much shrugged, and I was on my own, but Joe Cohen and Bryan Lourd stuck by me, and Brian Siberell made sure I went back to work right away, as soon as I could process this trauma. They all believed in me. As far as I know, I was the only WGA member with a show ON THE AIR to be forced out by a so-called Act of God clause.
I have supported the Guild as a matter of conscience since I became a member over 30 years ago. But something has happened. I am watching people I love being characterized as racketeers and criminals. Yes, there are real changes needed in terms of the agencies and packaging and subsidiary production companies, but the notion that these people are simply avaricious and greedy exploiters is lacking in nuance or context, and does not seem to take into account the enormous changes in the media landscape and the ever-increasing power of the studios and streaming services. By turning our agents into villains, by insisting on a tone of incivility, you have alienated essential allies when calm and patience could have achieved actual results.
Indeed, the WGA has negotiated its legitimate concerns in a manner so bellicose, so histrionic, so lacking in scale and perspective, that in my opinion, you have betrayed the interests of the membership. You’ve employed a scorched earth policy that disregards the significant, and in my case, life-changing, investments that agents have made in our careers — the endless hours, the conversations, the hand-holding, and, in particular, the nurturing and protection of younger, emerging voices.
The Leadership went to war avidly, and with glee, and everyone reading this knows this to be true. There was blood lust at work. David Simon was treated like a rock star for spinning out a scenario in which he could slash the tires of agents. Membership was tickled. Own that. Writers cheered him on, eager to topple the Evil Big Three. No perspective was allowed. No consideration of the changing dynamics of the entertainment industry was permitted. Our agents are now our enemies.
I believe it is time for a new kind of leadership to take the helm at the WGA. It is time for a mature, measured, and considered philosophy, one that does not depend on the politics of divisiveness to which we’ve become all-too accustomed. It is time for grown-ups who do not cast the entire business into chaos and darkness. It is time for a leadership that sees the vast changes occurring in the business, and acknowledges that writers are not surrounded by perpetual enemies.
It is time to reject the white hot rage, the desire to punish, the urge to tear down the extant structures, simply in the name of ‘fairness’. It is time for the WGA to learn that adults come to the table to find solutions, not to find cause for battle.
I am a union man, but I do not turn my back on my loyal friends. I cannot be the person you want me to be. I cannot cut ties with my agents, because I would be forsaking people I love, people who have helped me create a life where I go back and forth between two forms I know and love.
The WGA is a precious, vital, and proud union. The gains it has made for writers over the years have made it possible to have pensions and medical care that is unparalleled and to enter into business agreements with the knowledge that the Guild is there to protect and back up its members. And even in this battle, the Guild has worthy goals — I am not disputing that. But in all the decades of fighting studios and networks, in all the battles with actual adversaries, something has spilled over and affected your outlook and viewpoint in this conflict with the ATA.
Let us not be part of the current cruelty and coarseness of the world. The ATA is listening — you have them at the table. Please find a way forward that does not mean disruption and shattered relationships. Remember that agents are humans and have emotions, families, parents, and sensitivities, just like us. I have seen too many unintended consequences come true in history and in life, and I am afraid the ones here will have tragic consequences.
With sorrow and respect,
Jon Robin Baitz