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Why the WGA-Agents Battle Has Yet to Significantly Impact TV Dealmaking

Nearly five months after the Writers Guild and the Assn. of Talent Agents failed to reach a new franchise agreement, leading to thousands of writers firing their agents, it’s mostly business as usual at the TV networks and studios — for now. But as the impasse drags on and there’s no concrete sign of movement between the two sides, executives warn that the impact will soon be noticeable.

“It’s certainly made managers and lawyers have to work a lot harder,” says Showtime entertainment co-president Gary Levine. “There are a few bumps in the road, but we’ve been able to make the deals that we’ve wanted to make without a problem.”

Meanwhile, there have been no talks and very little movement in recent months in the dispute over packaging fees and the agencies’ move into production. The conflict has led to suits and countersuits by both sides. As the standoff drags on, there have been plenty of rumors about movement — officially, however, “it’s mostly radio silence,” says one writer. 

In the interim, according to network insiders, agents are still dealing with their A-list clients on existing overall deals, and they’re still calling about projects — but are clear that they’re repping directors and producers, not writers. Some writers are reaching out to development execs on their own. Elsewhere, projects have already been stacked up at the premium cable and streaming services, and with so much content in the pipeline, there’s no shortage of opportunities for scribes.

All of that has allowed the business to continue on a kind of autopilot despite the sudden absence of the traditional agent-writer relationship. 

Outgoing AMC entertainment networks president of programming David Madden says he hasn’t been talking with agents as much as he used to, and there “certainly isn’t the kind of auction environment that existed pre-clients firing their agents.” Madden notes that the majority of deals were made prior to separation, so for now the long-term effect would be minimal — that is, if the writers went back to their agents tomorrow. “But if this goes on another six months, it will be a lot more challenging,” he says.

HBO programming president Casey Bloys says that more dealmaking has fallen to entertainment lawyers in the absence of agents. Production pacts continue to be made, although “there are probably more to be had if it were a fully functioning marketplace,” he adds. “But even given that, it feels like a robust market.”

Recent TV megadeals include Greg Berlanti and John Wells renewing their pacts at Warner Bros. TV, Dan Fogelman sticking with 20th Century Fox TV, Lena Waithe moving from Showtime to Amazon and “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss leaving HBO for Netflix. 

“It’s really bizarre that there’s this high-end activity going on and yet tremendous discord in the day-to-day structure of it,” says HBO Max chief content officer and TBS/TNT/TruTV president Kevin Reilly. “Most of this is at a different level. It’s a pipeline of stuff that was in motion; deals were already happening.”

The more immediate impact of the standoff might have been in show staffing, but The CW president Mark Pedowitz says he has seen “minimal effect.” Execs can’t call agents to get lists, which leaves showrunners to drive those hirings. One showrunner tells Variety that his staffing went “surprisingly smoothly” despite the lack of agents. “I hired a writer with no agent and two others who hadn’t gotten one yet,” he says. “More writers are getting meetings and being read because of way guild membership banded together and helped each other out. … Those alternatives are just going to improve over time, and people will adjust.”

Speaking at the Television Critics Assn. press tour this summer, “Carnival Row” executive producer Marc Guggenheim said he was able to staff up the second season of the Amazon show without agents. “It’s possible, but I think agents do a lot more than simply submit writing samples to showrunners,” he noted. “We can get by without agents for that, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be getting back in a room and working out a deal.”

One agent says that broadcast development is fine, since the megadeal producers are getting more orders — and it’s the producer business that’s driving packaging.

But Pedowitz warns that new development is starting to see the effects of the standoff, starting with fewer original projects and more intellectual property coming in via agencies (a trend that was growing anyway). “The sad part about it from my perspective is the lack of representation is going to impact diversity writers and young writers who are trying to break in,” he says. “What you want to not happen is the backsliding of new talent coming into the business.”

For FX Networks chairman John Landgraf, the toll is also personal. “On a human level, as somebody who has many friends and close associates who are on both sides of this conflict, I can see there’s a lot of stress and anxiety,” he says. “I see there’s a human cost to what’s going on with people that I care about. But it hasn’t impinged on our ability to try to find the right path toward working with writers.” 

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