WGA Elections Define Fight With Agencies, Set Stage for Next Year’s Studio Talks

WGA Election

The campaigning around the Writers Guild of America West’s Sept. 16 election has focused in large part on the intense debate over the guild’s handling of its franchise contract renegotiations with Hollywood’s largest talent agencies. 

But more than anything, the contest for WGA West officer and board seats has put the spotlight on guild members’ frustration with the status quo and concerns about the future. 

The unveiling of the election results next week will surely kick off a new phase of wrangling with the agencies, and it will mark the start of the runway to spring’s master contract negotiations with the major studio conglomerates. Despite the divisions among WGA West members stirred by the agency battle, writers are united in their anxiety about how the compensation terms are changing in the streaming era.

“I’m sure, if you’ve negotiated with some of the big streaming outlets, that they’ve offered you an upfront buyout instead of a piece of your back end. That’s where the business is headed overall,” wrote showrunner and board seat contender Courtney Kemp in her candidate’s statement. “The Companies are looking actively to ‘buy us out’ up front, so they don’t have to share profits with us and they don’t have to pay us for re-use. And they will never have to tell us the truth about the value of our content. They will own your intellectual property outright and forever.”

These fears and the general uncertainty in the industry after a string of transformative mergers and acquisitions (Disney-21st Century Fox, AT&T-Time Warner, CBS-Viacom) have put the creative community on the defensive as the latest round of guild contract negotiations approach. Even those advocating for a more moderate stance with the agencies in the battle over packaging fees and affiliated production entities are ready to hit the hustings and strike over such issues as higher digital residual fees, improved family leave policies and profit participation protections. 

Kemp is part of the Forward Together slate of 10 candidates, headed by presidential contender Phyllis Nagy, who have voiced strong opposition to the current regime’s strategy on the agency franchise agreement. David Goodman, the guild’s incumbent president, is seeking a second two-year term. He’s been front and center in the guild’s agency fight, which is tied up in dueling lawsuits.

Nagy’s contingent maintains the guild needs to stop spending money and resources on the agency lawsuit and reach a settlement that allows writers and representatives to reunite. Forward Together also argues that the WGA needs the support of agencies as it gears up for what could be another seminal negotiation over writers’ rights and paychecks in the digital age. Forward Together board candidate and showrunner Sarah Treem describes it as setting up a “very powerful partnership to face the monumental negotiation ahead of us, with our agents as advocates at our sides.”

Goodman says he expected there to be dissent as the guild pushed for agency reforms that required sacrifices from members who fired agents en masse in April to back up the WGA’s position. Goodman makes no apologies for the guild’s tactics during the past year. He and other active guild members set their sights more than five years ago on eliminating packaging fees. He ran for the presidency in 2017 with every intention of pursuing that agenda. 

“Whenever the guild takes on any kind of campaign there are divisions,” Goodman tells Variety. “There are thousands of members in the guild. The idea we’d all agree on how to take on something like this is ridiculous.”

The emergence of Forward Together is the biggest opposition challenge to WGA West leadership since 2005. That was the year future WGA West president Patric Verrone corralled the Writers United slate, which led to a makeover of the guild’s permanent staff and the appointment of David Young as executive director. Verrone and Young steered the guild through the 100-day strike that lasted from November 2007 to February 2008 and ground film and TV production to a halt. 

Nagy and others are urging the guild to find a negotiated settlement to the litigation against WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners that the guild initiated in April, after talks with the Assn. of Talent Agents broke down. The agencies individually countersued the guild starting in June, and now both sides’ cases are pending in Los Angeles federal court. 

“There’s such polarization,” Nagy tells Variety. “It’s very clear to us that there are members who don’t believe in the all-or-nothing strategy” on agency reforms, she says. “There’s a high level of anger and bitterness.”

The agency battle has also irritated what has been a perennially touchy issue for the guild: the vast gap in earnings between its highest- and lowest-paid members.  

Top showrunners have made headlines during the past two years by commanding eye-popping nine-figure production deals. Meanwhile, writers on the lower rungs of the pecking order are grappling with stagnant paychecks and longer hours, a sign that many agents aren’t doing their jobs, in the guild’s view. That more than 30 boldface names — including Greg Berlanti, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy — signed an open letter in July endorsing Nagy’s slate underscored the level of discontent among prominent guild members. But the public break with guild leadership drew harsh — in some instances vitriolic — criticism of Nagy’s endorsers as wealthy elitists willing to undercut the guild even though they are less dependent than other members on agents to find work. 

The cauldron of issues and emotions on display in the WGA West election is setting the stage for tense negotiations in the coming months with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The WGA’s master contract expires May 1. The Directors Guild of America’s and SAG-AFTRA’s pacts are up June 30. 

This time around, the sides will be coming to the negotiating table after more than a year of industry upheaval, from M&A to #MeToo, that has left the AMPTP companies without an obvious choice of executive leaders with relevant experience to help guide the process. Disney’s Bob Iger has played that role in the past. But his schedule will be packed early next year with the launch of Disney Plus, the integration of 21st Century Fox and the search for his successor if he is to step down as scheduled at the end of 2021.

The winners of the WGA West election next week will immediately have to face up to a series of daunting challenges — tackling the agency impasse, preparing for the AMPTP talks and taking steps to ease the guild’s intramural tensions. Industry sources predict there will be outreach in one form or another from the agency side to the guild once the election results are clear. “Somebody’s got to do something,” says a senior Big Four agency source. “Nobody thought this would go six months.” 

The agency drama has animated the guild elections, but in their campaign communications Goodman and Nagy have both pointed to other issues of concern beyond the agency campaign. 

“I feel very strongly that feature writers have not gotten enough attention in negotiations,” Goodman says, citing the pressure on screenwriters to do unpaid polishes and rewrites as well as other film-centric problems. “The companies still make enormous profit from features, but the fact that feature writer salaries are going down in such extreme ways — we need to address that.”

Nagy, who primarily works in film, says she hears dollar-and-cents concerns from members. The perception that Peak TV has led to boom times for writers is dead wrong, she says. 

“What I’ve found is that the core member concerns are: When is my next paycheck coming?” Nagy says.