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Divisions in Writers Guild Stir as the Battle With Agents Drags on

The Writers Guild of America has flexed its considerable muscle in mounting the campaign to ban talent agencies from collecting packaging fees and expanding corporately into the production-distribution arena.

But in doing so, the WGA has exacerbated long-simmering tensions among its members that could handicap future efforts to rally the scribe tribe around guild priorities, such as next year’s master TV and film contract renegotiation with the major studios.

The guild’s fire-your-agents mandate that came down on April 12, after talks between the WGA and the Assn. of Talent Agents broke off, has heightened the divide between screenwriters and TV writers, and it has put a klieg light on the growing income gap among its members. Like SAG-AFTRA and DGA, the WGA has the challenge of managing a union in which the top echelon of its roughly 15,000 members (across the WGA West and the WGA East) pull in upwards of seven figures a year, while a much larger percentage on the lower end may not work as a writer at all in any given year.

One of the biggest gripes among writers has been that the break between WGA members and agents threatens to disproportionately hurt members who are not among the WGA’s top earners. Prominent showrunners and screenwriters threw their support behind the agency reform campaign. But as the standoff heads into its third month, there is anger that some of the most vocal supporters of the guild’s campaign have been those who enjoy the guaranteed income of an overall deal with a studio or production agency. That means they are far less reliant on the help of an agent to find work because they are already under exclusive contract.

The intense focus on the granular details of how writers — and their agencies — get paid has also raised a philosophical question about whether showrunners qualify as management or labor, and whether they belong in the WGA at all. Showrunners are managers in the sense that they have the power to hire and fire and set the salaries for the other writers who work for them. But the anger aroused in recent weeks has spurred talk of an effort to sort out this conundrum with the National Labor Relations Board or in the courts.

The talent agencies zeroed in on the haves-and-have-nots factor in positioning their latest offer to the guild as a benefit for “working writers,” which is code for mid- and lower-level scribes. The ATA proposes to share 2% of agency packaging-fee income on profitable series with writers on those shows who would not otherwise receive any backend windfall.

Many writers who primarily work in film have been angered by the feeling that top TV scribes do not pay their fair share when it comes to WGA dues, which amount to 1.5% of a member’s income from writing.

For showrunners and other top TV writers, those dues are calculated based on their WGA scale earnings rather than their total compensation for working on a show. That’s because earnings beyond the WGA scale fees that are laid out in the guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement are typically classified as payment for the producing aspects of work on a series.

Screenwriters, on the other hand, rarely have an opportunity to isolate their writing earnings from their producing ones. They typically pay dues on the full amount, beyond WGA scale, because the work is defined entirely as writing. The gap is made clear by the numbers in the annual earnings breakdown reported by the WGA West.

In 2017, the most recent data available, the WGA West reported 4,670 members who worked for TV and digital platforms and delivered total earnings from writing of $976.3 million. By comparison, 1,940 writers working in film delivered $420.9 million in writing earnings in 2017. The fact that screenwriters delivered nearly half of the earnings of the TV side — even though far fewer screenwriters worked compared with TV writers — is a festering source of resentment at a time when top showrunners writers are making headlines by commanding eye-popping nine-figure overall deals.

This hornet’s nest of frustrations and conflicting priorities has been stirred up by the WGA’s aggressive campaign to cast agents as lazy, greedy and corrupt. These irritants will not be easily soothed even if the agency standoff eases in the near future.

By multiple accounts, CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd delivered opening remarks worthy of Tom Hanks in the third act of a courtroom drama on June 7 when the
WGA and the ATA met for their first negotiating session since April 11. Speaking on behalf of ATA members, Lourd emphasized that the biggest threat to writer income over the long haul lies with the seismic shifts underway among the handful of media giants that dominate employment for Hollywood writers.

“The unspoken strategy of these multinational content and distribution companies is to drive prices down and wipe out ownership for writers and creators,” Lourd said. “This is happening in real time as we’ve sat here in limbo for these last two months, fighting with each other as opposed to cooperating with each other to face this real challenge.”

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