Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have told their 15,000 members to fire their agents.
Members began sending the dismissal letters to agencies soon after the announcement that negotiations for a new agreement with agencies had collapsed.
The unprecedented move came with the WGA’s negotiating committee announcing late Friday afternoon that it had not been able to reach a deal with the agents to revamp the 46-year-old franchise agreement. “So there is no settlement,” the committee said.
“So what happens now?” the committee said. “In a strike situation, we all know that we are to refrain from crossing the picket line or writing for a struck company, and we’re asked to show our solidarity by picketing, which is the public and moral face of our dispute.”
“In this situation there are two actions required of all members: First, do not allow a non-franchised agent to represent you with respect to any future WGA-covered work. Second, notify your agency in a written form letter that they cannot represent you until they sign the Code of Conduct.”
The failure of the WGA and the Association of Talent Agents over the past two months to reach a deal opens the door to a potentially chaotic landscape this weekend.
“We are in total uncharted territory,” one veteran manager said. “These things are relatively easy to get into but not out of. I predict this will go on for a couple of months at a minimum.”
The two sides were due to hold their fifth negotiating session in seven days in an attempt to revamping the rules governing how agents represent writers. The last round of negotiations launched at 3 p.m. PDT — a mere nine hours before the expiration of the current franchise agreement. Negotiations cratered in about an hour and the WGA sent out an email blast to members at 4:38 pm.
WGA West President David Goodman said in a lengthy response to the ATA Friday that the two sides have not closed the gap.
“As I said, we granted the week’s extension as a sincere effort to try to find a solution,” he said. “But it is clear to us that we are not appreciably closer. We are willing to continue meeting with you when you provide a proposal that truly addresses our expressed concerns, but our Friday deadline has arrived and we are moving forward with the implementation of our Code of Conduct and the enforcement of our WGA Working Rule 23.”
That rule prohibits members from being represented by agents who are not signed to a WGA franchise agreement — which expires at midnight Pacific time. The guild posted an extensive FAQ for members on Friday detailing how to fire their agents.
The WGA had said previously that it would require its members to fire their agents if they had not agreed to a new “Agency Code of Conduct,” which eliminates agency packaging fees and ownership in production companies, after the current agreement expires. The code was approved in late March by 95% of guild members who voted. Nearly all the agencies have refused to sign it.
Not surprisingly, the agents blamed the WGA for the failure to reach a deal.
“The WGA leadership today declared a pathway for compromise doesn’t exist,” said Karen Stuart, executive director of the ATA. “Agencies have been committed to reaching an agreement with the WGA but, despite our best efforts, today’s outcome was driven by the Guild’s predetermined course for chaos.”
“The WGA is mandating a ‘Code of Conduct’ that will hurt all artists, delivering an especially painful blow to mid-level and emerging writers, while dictating how agencies of all sizes should function,” she added. “We came to the negotiating table in good faith and put forth comprehensive proposals providing choice, disclosure, transparency, shared revenue and a significant investment in inclusion programs. Unfortunately, not to our surprise, the WGA did not accept our offer, did not provide counterproposals and refused to negotiate further. We’re prepared to continue to fight for the best interests of writers and all artists.”
There was no indication when negotiations might resume.
The WGA’s no-compromise stance turned out to be more than the agents could accept. The WGA has been asserting that agencies taking fees from studios for packaging business and owning production affiliates are conflicts of interests to the agencies’ fiduciary duties to their writer clients.
As for the WGA, the agencies did not move far enough. The ATA announced Thursday night that they had offered to share a portion of the back-end profits from TV and film packaging fees with the WGA with 80% shared amongst a show’s writers not participating in the profits of the series and the remaining 20% invested in initiatives to foster inclusion of underrepresented writers.
The sides had been facing an April 6 contract expiration deadline, but an 11th-hour gathering on that day led to the WGA agreeing to a six-day delay in the implementation of the code, followed by four negotiating sessions on April 8, 9, 11, and 12.
The WGA’s opposition to the agencies became galvanized in early 2018 as concerns arose over CAA, WME and UTA investing in production companies — essentially, placing the agencies on both sides of the table as producers while representing writers.
The WGA put the agencies on notice on April 6, 2018, that it wanted to re-open negotiations on the guild’s previous agency franchise agreement with the ATA, called the Artists’ Managers Basic Agreement, had not been renegotiated since 1976. That meant the AMBA would be extinguished in 12 months.
WGA leaders have repeatedly accused the agencies of engaging in illegal conduct and warned several times that they have prepared a lawsuit against the agents.
In a letter published on March 23, the WGA announced that nearly 800 of its most prominent showrunners and screenwriters had signed a letter backing the WGA leadership in the dispute. Signers included Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti, Seth MacFarlane, Jenji Kohan, Eric Roth, Barry Jenkins and David Koepp.
The letter was part of a push by WGA leaders to persuade members to vote in favor on the new Agency Code of Conduct. In the middle of the five days of voting on March 29, the WGA blasted Endeavor, the parent of WME, over a report that it was planning an initial public offering.
“Today’s announcement that Endeavor plans to become a publicly-traded company only strengthens the call for the conflicted and illegal practices of the major talent agencies to end,” the guild said that day. “It is impossible to reconcile the fundamental purpose of an agency — to serve the best interests of its clients — with the business of maximizing returns for Wall Street. Writers will not be leveraged by their own representatives into assets for investors.”
WME is part of the same holding company that owns producer Endeavor Content, while CAA supports production entity Wiip. UTA partnered with MRC last year to launch producer Civic Center Media.
A definitive signal that the chances for a deal were vanishing came on Friday morning when the ATA warned the WGA against authorizing managers and lawyers to negotiate deals for writers in place of agents, telling them that doing so is illegal and that the ATA views the authorization as “unfair and unlawful competition.” It warned of unspecified “appropriate action” if the WGA continues to authorize managers and lawyers to act as agents.
The WGA responded with an accusation that the ATA was trying to bully managers and lawyers.
“The Guild stands by its action in lawfully delegating the authority it has as the exclusive representative of writers under federal law,” it said. “The agencies are attempting to intimidate attorneys and managers to stop them from performing work they routinely do.”