WGA leaders are set to meet Wednesday night with a group of showrunners who are raising concerns about the guild’s handling of negotiations with talent agents over the issue of packaging fees and agency-affiliated productions.
The meeting is set for 7:30 p.m. at WGA West headquarters. WGA West president David Goodman is expected to attend. The gathering is expected to include several dozen showrunners who want to press guild leaders on their strategy for handling the negotiations and the potential disruption to the regular course of business if a deal isn’t reached.
The WGA and Association of Talent Agents are facing an April 6 deadline for the expiration of the current franchise agreement.
“We’re meeting with our members literally every day,” a WGA West spokesman said. “Concerns are respected – and expected – in this kind of a situation.”
A number of showrunners have privately been discussing their alarm at the heated rhetoric the guild has used in communications to the membership about the need for reform in the franchise agreement that has long governed the rules for talent agents representing WGA members.
A source familiar with the situation said showrunners recognize that agencies in varying degrees have abused the packaging fee system to the detriment of writers. But there’s still doubt about whether the guild is pursuing the right battle for the moment given the mammoth changes across the industry as a whole.
Showrunners have a unique perspective on the marketplace dynamic because many of them are involved in the salary negotiations of members of their writing teams. Showrunners are also highly influential guild members given their earning power and clout within the industry, particularly at a time of Peak TV.
Some showunners have privately been quick to counter the statements from the WGA that agents no longer have incentive to push for higher salaries for writers because agencies routinely receive packaging fees on shows paid by the production entity.
“That has definitely not been my experience,” said a prominent showrunner who is set to attend Wednesday night’s meeting. Showrunners have shared anecdotes about calling their own agents to push them to come to terms on deals for writers represented by the same agency on packaged shows.
But others are vehemently opposed to the practice of packaging, viewing it as an inherent conflict of interest that takes a toll on the earnings of writers working in lower and mid-level positions on TV series.
David Simon, the respected showrunner behind “The Wire,” wrote a scathing essay about his experience as a young writer when he was kept in the dark about his CAA agent’s clear conflict in representing Simon as the author of the book that became NBC’s “Homicide” series when the agent was also representing the director-producer — Barry Levinson — who optioned Simon’s book. Simon later received what he called a “fat-ass check” from CAA as a settlement.
“Packaging is an unconscionable abuse of the bargaining rights of writers by their designated representatives, too many of whom long ago lost sight of their fundamental fiduciary responsibilities,” Simon told Variety last month. “Recognizing that, I have since refused to allow my productions to be packaged or to allow any writer working for me to be so victimized by this grifting, dishonorable practice.”
The Association of Talent Agents has proposed that the WGA franchise agreement be revised to mandate greater transparency in packaging and for giving writers the option to say yea or nay to having their agency receive a packaging fee. Some showrunners point to the hardship that the end of packaging would put on lower-paid writers and actors in packaged shows, because the standard 10% commission is traditionally waived if the agency receives a package.
The WGA is set to hold a membership vote on the agency franchise issue that will be conducted online from March 27 through March 31. On Wednesday, the WGA made a concession to the ATA in offering to allow agencies to charge fees for sales and financing services on independent film productions budgeted at less than $20 million with the approval of the writer client. Films budgeted over $20 million would require a waiver from the guild.
Agency sources said the move was a mostly empty gesture because it still limits an agency’s upside. Last week, the agency reps made the case in negotiations with WGA leaders that the indie film market would shrink dramatically if agencies no longer helped arrange financing for projects in exchange for packaging fees.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the WGA’s offer on independent films applied only to those budgeted at $20 million or more.