Amid Hollywood’s bitter agency-versus-writers battle, United Talent Agency has issued a robust defense of its television packaging activity.
In a three-season study released Wednesday, UTA asserted that its TV writer clients earn $3,374 more per episode on shows the agency packages than on those it does not package. The study also found that writers saved an average $2,439 per episode in commissions across every show that UTA packages and that fees for writers on shows UTA packages are $22,079 per assignment higher than for writers on shows the agency does not package.
“The data refutes any assumption or claim that writers are disadvantaged economically by writing for shows that the agency packages,” the agency said. “UTA’s waived commissions for writers amount to more than $45 million in total over the three years analyzed.”
The data was drawn from 2,435 total TV writing assignments, including 1,337 on programs that UTA packaged (entirely or partially) and 1,098 on programs that were not packaged by UTA between 2015 and 2018. Key UTA packaged shows include “How I Met Your Mother,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Modern Family.”
The UTA report covered 33,555 episodes of scripted series, TV movies, pilots, teleplays and sketch shows. It only contained data for UTA writers.
David A. Goodman, president of the Writers Guild of America West, asserted that the data do not demonstrate that writers working on packaged shows are better off.
“The agencies say that stagnation for lower and mid-level writers is not the result of packaging, that the data proves that writers working on agency-packaged shows are not disadvantaged,” he said. “This is a false premise. There is no way to compare what writers would make in a world with agency packaging and without agency packaging. Agency packaging is so dominant that it controls the whole market for writers in television. Besides the Disney Channel, virtually all shows are packaged.”
The report comes with the WGA and the Association of Talent Agents having made little progress in negotiations to revamp the 43-year-old rules governing how agents represent writers and face an April 7 deadline to reach a deal. The WGA has said it will require its members to fire their agents if they have not agreed to a “code of conduct,” which eliminates agency packaging fees and ownership in production companies.
In packaging, an agency forgoes commissioning the client and receives a fee from the television studio. It’s become a particularly emotional issue over the past year with the WGA alleging that agents are disincentivized 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 earlier this week which calculated that writers would have lost at least $49 million annually had they had pay commissions on packaged shows.
David Simon, a member of the WGA East Council, alleged in a blistering post this week that the 1990 sale of his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” was packaged by CAA without his knowledge or consent, which led to CAA representing both sides of the sale in what he called an “overt and untenable conflict-of-interest.” The book became the basis of the 1993-99 NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” on which Simon was a producer and writer. He went on to create “The Wire,” “Treme,” and “The Deuce.”
“Packaging is a lie,” Simon said in the post. “It is theft. It is fraud. In the hands of the right U.S. attorney, it might even be prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering.”
The WGA said in a recent message to its 13,000 members that packaging fees should be eliminated to assure that agents are working for writers: “The marketplace of film and television is best served when writers, directors, actors and producers, who are suited to each other on any given project, are connected to each other by agents who put the interests of their clients first. That is their legal obligation. We made no deal to advance the careers of our agents. They are secondary beneficiaries to our success and not the other way around.”
Additionally, the WGA released a new message to members Wednesday, a few hours after the UTA report, with the title “TV Writer Pay: Losing Ground.”
“Writers are the creative heart of television and are ultimately responsible for the most important assets in the business, yet they have been left behind,” the post began.
“In 1999, a writer with the title of Producer on a half-hour network comedy in its first season made $15,000 per episode. Adjusted for inflation the fee would be more than $23,400 today,” it continued. “But in the WGA’s survey of TV writers from the 2017-18 season, the median episodic fee for a writer at the Producer level was only $16,000 per episode.”
“In 2000, a Supervising Producer on a one-hour network drama in its first season made $17,500 per episode. That would be $27,300 in today’s dollars. But again, 17 years later, Supervising Producers at the median were making only $17,500 per episode.”
The WGA then asked, “Shouldn’t writer income have been growing instead at the rate of inflation or more? The major companies we bargain with have experienced an extended and unprecedented period of profitability. Much of that success has been fueled by the huge growth in domestic and international demand for the quality content produced by Guild members.”
UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer sent out a message to clients Wednesday night, asserting that the agency has promised ” full transparency” and attacking the WGA proposals by saying that the agency wants writer clients to maintain their right to have choice in their careers.
“There is so much change and uncertainty in our business today, and we owe you a transparent and consistent relationship,” he said. “We also have the concerns and trust of our actor, director, cinematographer, and other clients to consider. They deserve choice as well. A unilateral abandonment of packaging adversely affects our writers who may not wish to pay commission and it also forces other artists on shows to also pay commission.”
“These decisions impact a broad section of the TV ecosystem. Lots of people will be affected. The WGA is trying to make a decision for everyone by eliminating everyone’s choice,” Zimmer added. “If a UTA creator chooses to not have a package on a show they create then so be it. Fine, that’s your choice. Then any UTA actor, director, editor, or DP can make their own choice about their participation with commission as one element of their decision.”