A flurry of phone calls and emails and one crucial text message led to Saturday’s stealth meeting between WGA representatives and talent agency leaders.
The four-hour session at WGA West headquarters ended with the guild agreeing to a six-day delay in implementing new rules governing agents who represent the guild’s 15,000 members. The sides are expected to meet again on Monday or Tuesday in the same small-group setting that allowed for more constructive dialogue on Saturday than had been achieved in the formal negotiating sessions with larger groups, according to multiple sources.
David Young, WGA West executive director, told Variety on Sunday that there was enough substance to the discussion that it warranted giving negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents a little more time to play out.
“We had a good conversation and we haven’t really had very many of those,” Young said. “We thought we’d give it a shot for another few days.”
A high number of showrunners and writers sent messages last to WGA West president David Goodman, urging him to find a solution to the impasse that threatens to force WGA members to fire agents who won’t agree to the WGA’s new Agency Code of Conduct rules. At the same time, talent agents were inundated with messages from writers expressing their unhappiness with the situation and vowing to return as clients when the dust settles.
“Clients were saying ‘Yes, I signed the WGA letter and yes I voted yes for the Code of Conduct but I don’t want to fire you so why can’t you fix this,” said a veteran agent.
Late last week, UTA co-president Jay Sures sent a message to Goodman asking for a meeting with a small group of representatives. Goodman sent the request to Young, who called Sures. That conversation led to an agreement to gather on Saturday, hours before the midnight PT expiration of the guild’s existing agency franchise agreement.
The WGA had vowed to implement its new code at 12:01 a.m. PT on Sunday. There were no meetings between the sides for more than a week until Friday night, when Goodman made contact with Sures, who has been a key player in the negotiations along with WME’s Ari Greenburg and Rick Rosen and CAA’s Bryan Lourd. An agreement was reached to meet Saturday at around 11 a.m. PT at WGA West headquarters with no more than four of five representatives on both sides.
Young said the dynamic with the smaller group was probably a factor in helping to break the ice.
“I’ve seen situations where can have all the conversations you need with a lot of people in the room,” he said. “Sometimes you need to be in a room with fewer people. It’s a question of getting to the truth of the matter.”
The WGA was represented by Young, showrunners David Shore and Mike Schur and screenwriter Michelle Mulroney. Shore is one of three co-chairs of the WGA’s negotiating committee on the ATA contract.
The ATA side was repped by exec director Karen Stuart, Sures, Rosen, Lourd and APA’s Jim Gosnell, who is president of ATA.
The guild aims to bar the longstanding industry practice of talent agencies collecting packaging fees from TV shows and movies, arguing that it is an inherent conflict of interest for agencies to be paid by production entities rather than on a client-commission basis. The WGA and Association of Talent Agents have been wrestling over packaging fees and other issues in negotiations that began in earnest in February. The sides were trying to hammer out a successor to the guild’s agency franchise agreement, which had been untouched since 1976.
Sources close to the situation described the meeting as “civil” and “cordial” and, most important, productive. The focus was on having a conversation about the most explosive issues rather than trying to hammer out any kind of formal agreement. In previous meetings sources said Young did most of the talking for the WGA side but on Saturday there was more back and forth among all parties at the table. Shore and Schur were described as particularly articulate on the issues.
The biggest points of disagreement for the guild and ATA are over packaging fees — a decades-old industry practice that has been branded illegal and immoral by the guild — and the expansion of the parent companies of the largest agencies into production. The ATA side went further than they had in the past in acknowledging that there have been abuses with packaging. A rising number of complaints from WGA members sparked the guild’s focus last year on the need to revise its agency franchise agreement. The agencies maintain that packaging is a boon for clients because the agencies waive the standard 10% commission fee for all clients (beyond just the writers) on a project when the agency receives a packaging fee.
Young would not comment on the details of the discussion, nor would he comment on what it would take for the WGA to reach a deal with the ATA.
“They’ve been denying from day one that there was a problem,” he said. “Yesterday was the first day they admitted there was a problem. That’s why it was a good conversation from my point of view. It matters whether or not you’re being heard.”
Young said the ball was in the ATA’s court to present proposals to address the guild’s conflict-of-interest concerns on packaging and production.
“It’s not a moral high-ground thing,” he said. “We’ve made proposals. We’re clear about where we stand. We’ll see if we see anything that addresses those concerns.”
It’s no secret that a number of prominent WGA members are pressuring the guild to find a path to a solution that does not involve a mass exodus of clients from top agencies. There’s concern about such a break being disruption to the orderly course of business at a time when the TV and film businesses overall are in major flux.
Young downplayed the suggestion that pressure from members pushed the WGA to act on Saturday. He said there had been previous requests for small-group meetings with WGA negotiating committee members that did not include him — a point disputed by ATA sources.
“There are always people who are nervous. It’s a conflict situation,” Young said. “I hear from members every day from every angle and so does David Goodman. He’s not getting a lot of pressure. He didn’t get pressure to extend the deadline. That’s not why the meeting took place. They finally agreed to have a meeting on terms that were acceptable.”
Another issue that generated a lot of discussion was the WGA’s push for agencies to turn over all writer client contracts and financial information to the guild. The ATA reps responded that they would only do so if such disclosures were approved by each clients. The WGA maintains that contracts should be turned over regardless because of its status as the guild overseeing employment standards for writers.
Young said a big problem with the series packaging process is that it has become “a complete black box to my members.”
Young said the WGA’s request for contracts and employment data is an effort to better track studio dealings with writers as well as to monitor how agents are performing in their role as advocates for WGA members. He cast it as an issue of the guild enforcing its oversight responsibility. Agency sources say clients have expressed wariness about a blanket agreement to hand over financial data to the guild.
The ATA has previously pledged to bring “choice and transparency” to writer clients when it comes to packaging and working with affiliated production entities. Clearly, that is not enough in Young’s view.
“The starting point for any honest relationship is clarity about what’s going on,” Young said. “The notion that agencies can just hide all of their money and how they have become so successful that they are targets for IPOs and venture capital— my members don’t know how it happens and that’s not right. The definitive issues of this negotiation are intertwined. If you don’t have the information, the agencies could come up with new ways of getting paid by the studios and we wouldn’t know.”
As the meeting stretched into its fourth hour, the ATA proposed that the guild delay the implementation of the code by a week to allow the sides to continue talking. The ATA side was firm that they were not inclined to negotiate if the Code was already in force.
The WGA responded that any delay would have to be approved by a vote of its 25-member negotiating committee members, some of whom were out of pocket on Sunday on spring break vacations and other business. By day’s end, the committee voted unanimously to approve the extension.
Hours after the meeting ended, the WGA issued an email message to members around 9:30 p.m PT members confirming the delay. Sources said the ATA was notified only minutes before the message to members was sent. Many on the agency side were rankled by the WGA’s characterization of the meeting and the statement that “for the first time, the agencies acknowledged the depth of the problem that their behavior has caused.”
But the WGA message also left open the door for the ATA “to present us with proposals to address those problems and reach a settlement.” That was taken a something of an olive branch and a shift in what has been heated anti-agent rhetoric in the guild’s official communications.
Young has a well-established strategy of using a ticking clock as leverage in difficult contract negotiations. Now the big question is whether there was enough momentum established on Saturday to move the sides to a workable compromise by Friday.
“If only we’d had this kind of conversation four months ago, we could have already had a deal,” said an agency source.
Young said he felt there was a level of respect shown to the guild’s positions on Saturday that had been missing from previous discussions.
“If you feel in a negotiation that you have an extremely serious grievance that you’re trying to address and the other party’s response is ‘You’re confused’ or ‘You don’t understand how the business works,’ then here’s no way forward. That’s where we’ve been until now — maybe. We’ll see.”