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Writers Rally Behind WGA as Agents Warn of ‘Chaos,’ Dig in Against ‘Threat’

As the industry awaits the fallout from the split between writers and Hollywood’s established talent agents, many WGA members spent the weekend rallying support for the guild’s position and working to establish online networks to connect writers with prospective employers.

Meanwhile, the Association of Talent Agents vowed to dig in on its opposition to the WGA’s reform of the rules that govern talent agents who represent WGA members.

The ATA on Sunday issued its own set of “Standards for Client Representation” that incorporates some of the proposals put forth in negotiations with the WGA last week, before the talks broke down and the WGA implemented its new Agency Code of Conduct.

“Agencies will not be a willing participant to any further chaos. That’s the Guild’s plan,” ATA executive director Karen Stuart wrote. “Their course of action has thrown the entire entertainment ecosystem into an abyss, affecting stakeholders across the spectrum. As we embark through unknown territory, we must not lose sight of the fact that the WGA’s Code is unacceptable to all agencies — from those that employ two agents to those employing 2,000.”

A big part of the discord between the WGA and ATA is the dispute over the scope of the WGA’s ability to regulate agency conduct as it relates to guild members. The guild asserts that it has plenty of authority through its status as the union that governs all employment matters for its members.

The guild maintains that agents’ reliance on packaging fees paid by production entities, rather than the standard 10% commission on a client’s salary, have skewed their interests and contributed to keeping salaries low for mid- and low-level writers. Showrunners have shared stories of agents vowing to help keep overall writing costs down on packaged shows. The WGA has also sounded the alarm on conflict of interest concerns as the parent companies of the largest agencies — CAA and WME — expand their in-house production and distribution activities.

Prominent working writers were online during the weekend using the social media hashtag #WGAStaffingBoost to help spread the word about showrunners and their needs for staff writers, among other employment prospects. The contract battle between the WGA and Association of Talent Agents came to a boil on Friday night, just as broadcast TV’s traditional staffing season is starting. With the broadcast network upfronts only a month away, pilot orders will be made in the coming weeks, which means showrunners will need to fill out writers rooms.

In truth, the traditional spring staffing season is not the end-all hiring window that it once was for junior- and mid-level TV writers given the explosion of original series for cable and streaming outlets that don’t adhere to the same calendar of development and production as network TV. Scribes communicating with #WGAStaffingBoost and other hashtags were sharing info about showrunner needs and the specialities of writers looking for work.

Those digital efforts are an effort to replace the matchmaking and job-scouting functions typically handled for Hollywood writers by agents. After Friday’s breakdown of negotiations, dozens of writers posted their agency termination form letters online in a show of solidarity with the guild’s position.

The ATA has balked at the WGA’s effort to ban packaging for agents that represent WGA members. After a few weeks of tense negotiating sessions, the ATA put forth last week a proposal to share about 1% of packaging fee proceeds with the guild. Guild leaders and the negotiating committee assembled to handle the franchise agreement talks with ATA rejected that proposal as woefully inadequate to address their concerns.

Industry insiders will be keenly watching this week for signs of disruption in the normal course of business as hundreds if not thousands of writers terminate their business ties to talent agents. There’s also a strong possibility that litigation will ensue between the WGA and ATA.

Here is the full memo sent by ATA executive director Karen Stuart to the association’s members:

April 14, 2019

Dear ATA Members,

As you know, on Friday the deadline expired without an agreement between the WGA and ATA.
However, our resolve has never been stronger. We stand behind the comprehensive
counterproposals that we put on the table. We’ll keep fighting as a united front for the best
interests of our writer clients, while pushing against the WGA leadership’s threat to our agency
business operations. Meanwhile, we’ve provided a documents toolkit that is available on our
website to help you manage operations during this uncertain time.

From the beginning — and through countless townhall meetings and briefings with writer clients
— we’ve sought and gained a deeper understanding about what writers want, need and expect
from their agents in this rapidly changing landscape. We listened carefully. We examined our
business model. We sought facts and data. And we shared those facts and real hard data with
the Guild. Each time we sat down at the negotiating table, we arrived in good faith and came
prepared with thoughtful, fair and comprehensive counterproposals. The WGA flatly rejected our
counterproposals in a self-proclaimed “power grab” that favors industry-wide chaos over reason
and compromise. Although the future may be uncertain, we are ready for it.

The ATA Board of Directors has adopted the attached set of Agency Standards for Client
Representation as a voluntary model for agencies to govern their relationship with their writer
clients in the absence of an AMBA, and we encourage our members to adopt them as well. The
Agency Standards for Client Representation spells out how we plan to continue to serve and
support writer clients who decide to retain our agencies, despite incredible pressure from the
Guild to terminate relationships with non-franchised agencies, i.e. those agencies that refused to
sign their newly implemented “Code of Conduct.” It provides clarity and stability for writer
clients and your agencies in that it offers transparency, disclosures, safeguards and choice.
Agencies will not be a willing participant to any further chaos. That’s the Guild’s plan. Their
course of action has thrown the entire entertainment ecosystem into an abyss, affecting
stakeholders across the spectrum.

As we embark through unknown territory, we must not lose
sight of the fact that the WGA’s Code is unacceptable to all agencies — from those that employ
two agents to those employing 2,000. The Code would provide the Guild with an unprecedented
level of control to dictate how your agency operates and how it regulates the conduct of agents
in all respects, even those reaching beyond the Guild’s own jurisdiction.
While each individual agency will be building their own unique contingency plan for agents and
clients, the ATA remains committed to serving all member agencies and is available to help
manage that process together with each member agency. The toolkit available on our website
includes our Agency Standards for Client Representation, a Frequently Asked Questions
document, Agency Representation Agreements for use in California and New York, and a Writer
Representation Rider for your use. You’ll find the representation agreements and the Rider in the
Members Only section of our website.

We are going to do everything we can to mitigate the damage the Guild has imposed by
implementing their strategy. We are prepared to continue fighting for a long-term solution that
protects our clients and serves all ATA member agencies.

Sincerely,

Karen Stuart
Executive Director

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