The WGA on Tuesday pressed its effort to enlist the support of Hollywood managers in the guild’s growing standoff with the industry’s top talent agencies.
The guild held a meeting Tuesday morning at the Beverly Hilton to debrief managers on the frayed state of the guild’s negotiations for a new franchise agreement with the Association of Talent Agents. Guild representatives including WGA West president David Goodman and executive director David Young held a 90-minute session with about 100 managers that went better, by multiple accounts, than the first such meeting the WGA held last Thursday.
“There was recognition that people have different reactions to this issue,” said a senior executive at a major management firm. On Thursday, guild representatives faced more aggressive questioning from the managers in attendance at the W Hotel and came up short on answers, in the view of multiple attendees.
In response to a request for comment about the gathering, a WGA representative said, “We understand that change can threaten those invested in the status quo. Others will see it as an opportunity to better represent their clients in an environment liberated from agency conflicts of interest.”
The WGA is pushing to ban the longstanding industry practice of talent agencies charging packaging fees for assembling TV series for clients. The guild also wants to crack down on the growing diversification at the largest agencies into content production and distribution, calling it an inherent conflict of interest with WGA member clients.
One source described the WGA’s tone as aggressive, with a presentation that referred to agency packages as “a 40-year scam” and a “crime.” The impetus to focus on studio expenditures on packaging fees came from members complaining about the fees as a line-item in production budgets that might otherwise be put on the screen or used to hire more writers.
Managers who attended the meeting acknowledged that there had been abuses in the packaging fee process as agencies have grown more dependent on them as revenue sources. But some managers scoffed at the guild’s blanket statement that agency profits have spiked while writer income has stagnated in the Peak TV boom, and that studios will return the money now paid out for packaging fees to writers if the guild is successful in eliminating the practice. Agencies counter that the declines in the income of some writers are the result of the TV industry’s paradigm shift to series episode orders of 6-13 per season rather than 22-24 as in years past.
The WGA will hold a membership vote on March 25 to gauge the sentiment about its proposed talent agency franchise reforms. Goodman is said to have told the managers that the guild is looking for overwhelming support from members in the referendum, and a lower turnout could influence how hard they push on the agency issue. If the guild and ATA can’t reach an agreement on a new pact by April 6, the guild has vowed to impose a new Code of Conduct that agents have to abide by to represent WGA members. That means WGA members could be forced to abruptly cut ties with their talent agents, which will be a tall order for some members.
The WGA asked managers to support the guild’s position in discussions with clients. The WGA also asked managers to have clients contact the guild to give their direct feedback on the issues. A source said the guild told the room that other entertainment unions were “quietly supportive” of the WGA’s campaign.
Managers by California law are barred from procuring employment for clients — that’s the job of franchised talent agents. In asking managers to support the WGA’s position, the guild indicated it would issue a statement urging members not to challenge managers who negotiate employment deals during the transitional period if WGA members are pressed to split with their agents.
Managers asked guild representatives at the meeting, which included longtime WGA attorney Tony Segall, what to tell clients that favor packaging fees because the traditional 10% fee is waived for clients when an agency has a package on a show. “The answer was ‘it’s a long game,'” said one attendee. The WGA hammered the point that writers will only be paid at the highest level when talent agent income is directly tied to writers’ salaries, rather than to a packaging fee formula based on the license fee for the show.
One manager in attendance said the spirit in the room on the WGA side in addressing the issue of declining incomes for writers felt in keeping with the focus on income inequality and social justice voiced by the new breed of progressive liberal Democrats such as newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
“This is really about inequality,” said the attendee. “This is about a lot of middle- and lower-level writers dealing with having to work more but make less.”