Hundreds of WGA members rallied solidly behind their union last week as the industry grappled with uncertainties spurred by the sudden break between writers and their talent agency representatives.
But as the standoff heads into its second week, signs of strain among some WGA members are beginning to emerge. Shalom Auslander, author and creator of the Showtime dramedy “Happyish,” penned a scathing “Official Coerced Termination Letter” to his reps at CAA that blasted the WGA for what Auslander describes as thuggish tactics in forcing members to fire their agents.
The letter, which is circulating in writer circles, likened Auslander’s situation to being held “hostage” by the WGA and threatened with disciplinary action if he did not send in the electronic form letter of termination provided by the guild. The WGA reportedly plans to deliver hard copies of the termination letters to the Big Four talent agencies — WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners — on Monday.
“This PR stunt of forced mass firings is merely that, a stunt, and one that hurts writers,” Auslander wrote in a letter that included a clip-art image of CBS News’ Walter Cronkite at the anchor desk in front of a chyron slate reading “Hostages.”
Auslander pointed parenthetically to the economic divide among TV writers in the guild among those have the stature to command overall deals with studios that guarantee a level of income, and those who grapple with less predictable paychecks by working on a project-by-project basis. Those who are looking for writing gigs on a regular basis are expected to feel the pinch of losing agency representation more than top-tier showrunners and screenwriters.
“(Not the 800 fabulously well-to-do showrunners who signed [the WGA’s] Letter of Support, of course. They’ll be fine, assuming Tesla doesn’t go under. Better than fine. Fantastic. Having used agents their entire careers to achieve their well-to-do-ness, these folks now insist we fire ours. For our benefit. One Percenters, economic or otherwise, always use the same logic; what’s so disturbing is that the 99% always seems to fall for it),” Auslander wrote.
The awkwardness of the situation has left numerous writers in employment and deal limbo just as the broadcast TV staffing season is heating up. A number of prominent showrunners juggling multiple projects, some even in the unscripted and feature film arena, have been in touch with one another and sharing their frustrations with one another.
It’s no secret that some high-profile members have raised concerns with guild leaders, including exec director David Young and WGA West president David Goodman, about the WGA’s endgame in waging the campaign against conflict-of-interest concerns against the Association of Talent Agents. The WGA and eight guild members filed a lawsuit against the Big Four agencies last week. On April 12, negotiations on a new agency franchise agreement between the WGA and ATA ended and the guild issued a directive to nearly 15,000 members to cut their business ties with any agents that refuse to sign the guild’s newly implemented Agency Code of Conduct.
As much as there is growing angst in the WGA ranks, there have been no shortage of examples of grassroots member efforts to support the guild. The WGA wants to eliminate the institutional practice of talent agents receiving packaging fees on TV series and some movies from production entities, rather than being paid by commission by writer clients, on conflict of interest grounds.
Members who vehemently support this position are organizing guild solidarity mixer events — such as one that drew dozens of members to Public House 1739 in the Los Feliz area on April 18 — and using the hashtag #WGAStaffingBoost and other social media tools to connect writers with prospective showrunners and employers.
Writer-director Daniel Zucker organized the April 18 mixer, spreading the word via social media with the hashtag #WGAMIX. More such gatherings are expected, with events planned in New York for WGA East members on April 27 and April 30, according to social media postings.
WGA members in attendance on April 18 shared photos and videoclips of Public House packed shoulder to shoulder with scribes expressing their solidarity for the campaign the WGA has dubbed “Clients Over Conflicts.”
“#WGAMIX may have begun with me but it belongs to all of us,” Zucker tweeted on April 19. “The more we connect, the stronger we are.”
#WGAMIX may have begun with me but it belongs to all of us. The more we connect, the stronger we are. Host one. I mean it.
— Daniel Zucker (@DirectFromDZ) April 19, 2019
Here is Shalom Auslander’s CAA termination letter in full:
My Official Coerced Termination Letter, As Per WGA Demands, Which I Intend to Comply With Completely and Without Question
Dear Joe and Praveen;
I am writing to you from an undisclosed location in Los Angeles, where I have been taken hostage by a half-mad group of Hollywood writers; they feed me nothing but avocado toast and fair-trade coffee, and read aloud to me from Save The Cat all night long. It’s brutal.
I’m not a very good hostage, I’ll be honest. I tend to weep. I crack. I cave. I beg to call my shrink. And so I am writing to inform you, as my captors have demanded, that you are fired. I have no choice but to comply, about this my captors have been very clear, in the hundreds of vaguely threatening emails they have sent me. They sent me two more just yesterday. We are fighting for your freedom, they said. Now do what we fucking tell you.
Firing you might sound like a strange demand from captors, but it gets stranger: my captors are people who say they’re my protectors. I’ll explain:
Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to sell a TV series. It was the first thing I’d ever written for TV. The network’s first question was this: What’s the 100th episode?
A clip show, I replied.
We all enjoyed that joke for some time.
Their second question was this: Are you a member of the Writer’s Guild?
I was not. I didn’t even know what it was. Did I have to be?
Yes, they said. There was no choice.
But I’d written books, I said. Novels. Memoirs. Short stories. I’d never had to join a union before.
Join, they said. Or else.
The ‘or else’ was that I would not be able to write for Film or TV.
I’m not a team player, I’ll be honest about that, too. I don’t like people, and groups of them give me the willies. As George Carlin once said, Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups. Still, I had a wife and two children to think of, and books don’t pay what they once did. And so I joined.
It’s okay, they told me. We have a pension plan, and great medical (though a union of writer’s whose medical plan doesn’t cover OON shrinks can hardly be called great; gin isn’t covered either, which is fucking bullshit).
Now, five years later, the group I had no choice but to join is giving me no choice but to fire the people I chose to hire.
Or else. At least five years ago, I knew what the Or Else was.
Today they won’t tell me.
They simply send me legal documents to sign, crack their knuckles and say, In solidarity, Bitch.
What they will tell me, as they hold a gun to my head, is this:
You’re f——- me.
Not you personally, perhaps, but the corporation you work for. They’re probably right. I tend to get f—–, and so do writers. As I said, I don’t like groups, and groups known as corporations are the worst (a close second: groups that sign their emails “In Solidarity”).
So it’s likely I am being f—–. I’d like to find out – for myself, and for that family I mentioned earlier. That’s what courts are for. Sue away, fearless leaders! This is America after all. Is packaging legal? Are you double-dipping? Are you not doing your jobs? Let’s find out.
But this PR stunt of forced mass firings is merely that, a stunt, and one that hurts writers.
(Not the 800 fabulously well-to-do showrunners who signed their Letter of Support, of course. They’ll be fine, assuming Tesla doesn’t go under. Better than fine. Fantastic. Having used agents their entire careers to achieve their well-to-do-ness, these folks now insist we fire ours. For our benefit. One Percenters, economic or otherwise, always use the same logic; what’s so disturbing is that the 99% always seems to fall for it)
My captors assure me I’m going to be fine. Not only fine, but better than fine. Fantastic. They had a party last night in Los Feliz, and there’s a softball team that plays in Central Park. Clearly, I have nothing to worry about.
But then the pension fund they promised me is f—–, and by their own admission wages for writers have been stagnant for decades. So why should I believe they can help me now? If agencies have a history of f—— me, the Guild has a history of, well, doing f— -all, and doing it with belligerence and vindictiveness. They have already promised another war with managers next year (whom they non-ironically tell me will save me now), and one with the studios immediately after that.
Mayweather doesn’t fight this often.
But then maybe he doesn’t get medical.
They are quick to point, when questioned about this, that 65% of their membership (not of those who voted, mind you – of total membership) is behind this action. The mob approves, they say.
Which brings me to the strangest part of all of this: this is a group of writers. You’ll forgive my cultural elitism, but I believe writers are the lifeblood of any society. Yeah, doctors are okay, and where would we be without gamers? But writers are critical. Because we question. Because we rebel. Because we demand freedom – of thought and action. The best of us are serious pains in the ass. That’s the job. So guys, if your corporation is stealing from us, fuck them. We should take them to court.
But what of the group who claims to represent us yet gives us no choice? That strongarms us? That infantilizes us? That propagandizes to us, that compels us, that insists it knows better?
Well, speaking as a writer, f— them, too. Alas, I have no choice.
You’re not forcing me to quit the Guild (yet), but they are forcing me to fire you. The fair- trade coffee is going cold, and the avocado is browning, and if I don’t send you this letter by end of day today, I will be, in their words, subject to discipline. I will likely not be able to work in the industry again. In the same note, they remind me that their trials are not bound by any rules of evidence or procedure applicable in courts of law.
Judge F. Kafka presiding.
Discipline is also one of those things writers should chafe against, but here we have a union of writers threatening to do just that. To writers. Unions have been an important force in this nation, but perhaps in this case the cure has become the disease.
What Would Trumbo Do?
One last bit of bitter irony: they won’t even trust me to write my own letter to you.
A writer’s union, demanding I use their words.
And so, because the steel barrel of the gun of discipline is pressed against my temple, these are their words:
Dear (name of agency here) CAA;
Effective April 13, 2019, if your agency has not signed a franchise agreement with the Writer’s Guild of America, whether in the form of a Code of Conduct or a negotiated agreement, under WGA rules I can no longer be represented by you for my covered writing services. Once your agency is again in good standing with the Writer’s Guild, we can reestablish our relationship.
(your name here) Shalom Auslander.
For writers, that’s kind of lame.
But then the people running this Guild aren’t really writers, in the same way that there aren’t really artists running Creative Artists Agency.
They’re bureaucrats, politicians, businesspeople. People more interested in their momentary power than anything else.
One day I’ll be free – free to choose who to work with, free to choose if I want to be packaged, free to conduct my business the way I chose to, free to join a union or not. Free to not get f—– – by any group.
But that’s a long way away, and the gun is pointed at my head today. Tomorrow they will crow about how many writers did precisely what they demanded we do. And I will be one of those numbers.
So, because of that family I mentioned earlier, you’re fired.
And Death to the West.
And America is the Great Satan.
And everything else hostages say when they are given no other choice.
– Shalom Auslander