Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have sent members contingency plans for the possible expiration of its agency franchise agreement on April 7 — and admitted that it may be a rocky road.
Members received the letter Tuesday from the guild’s negotiating committee as the WGA and agents were about the hold their seventh negotiating session. It began, “While we continue to work toward a negotiated agreement with the Association of Talent Agents prior to the expiration date of the agency agreement we must simultaneously continue with contingency planning.”
“We have a plan,” the letter continued. “We know we cannot replace agents. There will be difficult moments. But our goal is to get through staffing season and whatever period of time it takes to make a fair deal with the agencies.”
“Our industry will not grind to a halt. Studios and producers will still need writers,” the committee added. “Writers on staff and working on projects will still go to work. Feature scripts will still get sold, and TV shows will still get staffed. Our ideas and our words will still have enormous value, and the work we all love to do will continue.”
The WGA then included a link with an extensive Q&A for the 15,000 WGA members. For example, it asked the question: “How do I leave my agents? Do I have to call them up and personally fire them?”
The response was: “No, you don’t need to communicate with your agency directly, unless you want to. This is a collective action by Guild members. All you have to do is electronically sign a form terminating your representation agreement. The Guild will deliver the terminations to the agency in a group. The Guild has prepared a standard termination form which will be available on the website and activated if and when necessary and you will be able to eSign it.”
More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters announced on March 23 that they had backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The signers endorsed the WGA’s efforts to reform decades-old industry practices involving agencies taking packaging fees on film and TV projects as well as other issues such as the expansion of the parent companies of the largest agencies into the production arena.
The WGA is demanding the elimination of agencies receiving packaging fees and having ownership interest in affiliate production companies — demands that the agencies have insisted are not feasible.
The WGA will hold five days of member voting starting March 27 on a proposed “code of conduct” eliminating agency packaging fees and ownership in production companies. Guild leaders have said they expect the code will be approved overwhelmingly. If the agreement expires, the WGA will require members to fire their agents if agents have not agreed to the new code.
The ATA made counter-proposals at the sixth negotiating session on March 21 with provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients including giving writers consent over whether a television show is packaged. The two sides made little progress in the five previous negotiating sessions to revamp the 43-year-old franchise agreement.
Most scripted television is packaged by agencies, which forgo commissioning the client and receive a fee from the television studio. It’s become a particularly emotional issue over the past year with the WGA alleging that agents are dis-incentivized to get the best deals for writers when they are collecting packaging fees from studios.
Agencies have defended packaging as a means of creating employment. The ATA released a report last week which calculated that writers would have lost at least $49 million annually had they had to pay commissions on packaged shows.