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Battle With Talent Agents to Impact Writers Guild Elections

WGA Agents Packaging Fight Placeholder
Cheyne Gateley for Variety

The current impasse between the Writers Guild of America and the industry’s largest talent agencies will resonate in the WGA’s September elections.

Many of the key players in the agency dispute have become candidates in the contest. David A. Goodman, who has become the public voice of the guild during the bitter standoff, is running unopposed for a second two-year term as president of the WGA West.

Incumbent VP Marjorie David and board members Angelina Burnett, Nicole Yorkin and Meredith Stiehm are seeking re-election and all are also members of the negotiating committee as is David Simon, who is seeking re-election to the WGA East council. Stiehm is co-chair of the negotiating committee. She and Simon are two of the eight named plaintiffs in the guild’s suit, filed April 17 in Los Angeles, against the Big 4 talent agencies alleging breach of fiduciary duty.

There are also a pair of WGA West board candidates — Ayelet Waldman and Rasheed Newson — who were among the 20 writers who went public with their dissatisfaction with the current WGA leadership, signing a letter this week pressing guild leaders for answers to complaints and concerns about the handling of the negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents.

Waldman told Variety she is a “very, very loyal member of the guild” who counted the agency situation as one of multiple reasons she considered running for a board seat.

“I think we all want to see changes in packaging and we want to see clarity around affiliated production but we also want to see a reasonable, negotiated end to this conflict. I think that’s across the board,” Waldman said. “Agents want to be representing their clients, clients want to be represented by their agents, people who don’t have agents want to get agents. Nobody wants this (impasse).”

Waldman stressed that she sees the biggest issue facing the guild as one that mirrors the national economic climate: income inequality between the haves and have nots. She sees next year’s master contract negotiations with the major studios as a chance to make more inroads for the middle-class writers who have been squeezed most by the recent seismic shifts in the scripted TV marketplace. The WGA’s master contract expires on May 1.

“I’m very focused on the middle tier of writers,” she said. “It’s as stratified as the country is right now. Just like in the country at large there is a top tier of writers making vast quantities of money and lot of people who are struggling to make their minimums to keep their health insurance.  Why in this age of Peak TV the people creating TV with the exception of that very top tier are not reaping the benefits? I think that needs to be be addressed. I’m hoping those 2020 negotiations are an opportunity to do some justice in that room.”

Waldman, who is married to fellow WGA member Michael Chabon, emphasized that she sees the guild as a vital engine to Hollywood writers’ success. “I don’t believe in God but I believe in my WGA health insurance,” she quipped.

The letter by the dissident writers included a pointed reference to former WGA West president and negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser shopping a new series co-produced by Endeavor Content — an affiliate of WME and one of the many WGA targets in its efforts to revamp the rules on how agents represent guild members.

“Will you ask any current board or negotiating committee member who is actively in talks with a Big 4 affiliate production company — either directly or through an intermediary — to resign in order to avoid any appearance of conflict?” the letter asked.

WGA West executive director David Young responded Thursday to the letter with point-by-point answers to the questions about the guild’s over-arching goal in implementing the agency reforms. He acknowledged the uncertainty stirred by the guild’s move and urged members to stand in solidarity with the agenda set by the leadership.

“Part of the uncertainty is not knowing exactly how long it will take to get a fair deal. Often that is the toughest part. We hope writers will support the campaign until we can get that fair deal,” Young wrote. He also rebutted the criticism in the letter that WGA leadership has not been forthcoming with members.

Goodman told members this week that the WGA was suspending negotiations with the ATA in favor of holding individual talks with the nine leading agencies — none of which have responded. On April 13, the WGA required members to fire their agents if the agents had not signed a new Code of Conduct which bans agents from collecting packaging fees and owning interests in affiliate production companies.

The WGA West candidates names released Friday were only those put forward by the guild’s nominating committee. Members can become nominees via petition until July 23. Winners will be announced on Sept. 16.