Amid the legal battle between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood largest talent agencies, eyebrows are being raised as a leader of the effort to reform the guild’s rules about agency practices is in the process of a shopping a new series co-produced by Endeavor Content.
Christopher Keyser is a veteran showrunner who is one of three co-chairs of the Writers Guild of America’s Agency Agreement Negotiating Committee. He has been working with Chernin Entertainment for more than a year on a series that is set to be pitched to at least five outlets next week. The list of stops is said to include Apple, Amazon, Showtime, Hulu and Netflix.
“The State of Affairs” is based on the 2017 book of the same name by relationship expert Esther Perel. Keyser is on board as an exec producer who will work closely with writer Anna Fishko in shaping the series, should it land an order. It is understood that the series also includes a packaging fee agreement split between WME and UTA, two of the four agencies that were sued last month by the WGA over the longstanding practice of agencies receiving packaging fees from producers. Before the WGA-agency battle went nuclear, Keyser had been represented by CAA.
Keyser, who was president of the WGA West from 2011 to 2015, has called the emergence of production activity affiliated with talent agencies “pernicious.” But in a statement Thursday, he asserted that the guild has not asked members to sever business ties with agency-affiliated production entities, nor does he see his work with Chernin Entertainment and Endeavor Content as “antithetical” to the WGA’s broader goal. He also noted that the WGA itself made an affirmative decision to allow members to work with Endeavor Content, as well as the CAA-affiliatd WiiP and UTA-affiliated Core Media Group, as signatories to the guild’s master contract.
“The Guild made a strategic decision to approve Endeavor Content as a Guild signatory company. Neither before the agency campaign began (when CAA made my deal with Chernin Entertainment) nor during the course of the campaign, has the Guild ever discouraged or forbidden any member from working with a so-called ‘affiliated studio.’ Every additional studio that provides work for writers is a good thing,” Keyser said. “That includes Endeavor Content, WiiP and CCM. This is in no way antithetical to the goals of the agency campaign, which is entirely focused on eliminating the conflicted practices of the agencies themselves. In the case of WME, CAA and UTA that means disentangling them from their studios, but not eliminating the studios or decreasing their business.”
Chernin Entertainment has a scripted TV joint venture with Endeavor Content, the production division that is owned by the parent company of WME. The WGA’s reforms of the rules that govern how agents represent guild members bans packaging fees and ban agencies from having any ties to so-called affiliated production entities. The WGA has instructed its nearly 15,000 members to fire agents that won’t sign on to the Agency Code of Conduct that was implemented on April 12.
The sides have been in a seven-week standoff and tensions have been high ever since the firings and the WGA’s lawsuit. The sides agreed last week to resume negotiations, but this week there has been confusion and finger-pointing about the delay in getting a meeting date on the books. The agencies, represented by the Association of Talent Agents, have suggested the sides break off into small working groups before convening a formal negotiating session with dozens of participants.
In a message to WGA members released May 1, Keyser told fellow writers that affiliated production entities are inherently a conflict for writers especially those at companies like Endeavor Content that are backed by private equity investments.
“The affiliated studios are, if anything, more pernicious,” Keyser said in the video message to WGA members. “Though some of us make good deals with them, that is not the point. They could instead make those good deals with us as independent studios. The agencies have created studios because they believe they will be more profitable than the traditional agency business itself. It is profits that drive priorities. And so between studios, whose imperative it is to lower costs — and agencies, whose imperative it is supposed to be to increase the cost of labor — who do you think wins out in the end? And when the agencies are beholden to private equity or to shareholders — all of whom demand return on investment and care not a bit about how much employees are paid — and we would be employees of the studios — who do you think wins out in the end? Investors or writers?”
Keyser’s business ties to Endeavor Content have been criticized by many WGA members who are concerned about the guild’s handling of the agency negotiations. The legal battle and negotiations process has stirred divisions among WGA members. Keyser critics say the fact that WGA leadership has cast the fight over packaging fees and affiliate production as an ethical and fiduciary breach makes it hypocritical of him to pursue “State of Affairs” with Chernin and Endeavor Content.
Keyser is not the only WGA leader to face uncomfortable ties to companies that are the targets of the WGA’s campaign. WGA East president Beau Willimon worked with Endeavor Content last year on the Hulu drama “The First,” which was canceled after one season.
Here is Keyser’s full statement:
The Guild made a strategic decision to approve Endeavor Content as a Guild signatory company. Neither before the agency campaign began (when CAA made my deal with Chernin Entertainment) nor during the course of the campaign, has the Guild ever discouraged or forbidden any member from working with a so-called ‘affiliated studio.’ Every additional studio that provides work for writers is a good thing. That includes Endeavor Content, WiiP and CCM. This is in no way antithetical to the goals of the agency campaign, which is entirely focused on eliminating the conflicted practices of the agencies themselves. In the case of WME, CAA and UTA that means disentangling them from their studios, but not eliminating the studios or decreasing their business. Remember, in 1962, MCA, the agency, went away, but Universal Studios remained. So, even if I could have anticipated this question, back when I made my deal, it would have raised no legal or ethical issues. No one is being asked or expected as some sort of gesture – to walk away from work at an affiliated studio. Our sole obligation in this struggle is to abide by (working rule) 23 and fire our agencies until they resolve their conflicted practices. That we have all done as a united Guild.