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Sparks Flew in WGA-ATA Meeting as Negotiations Cratered

The room at the Beverly Hilton was booked until midnight. But it took only about an hour on Friday afternoon for contract negotiations to break down and war to ensue between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood’s top talent agencies.

UTA co-president Jay Sures and CAA’s Bryan Lourd had testy exchanges with WGA West Executive Director David Young during Friday’s meeting as WGA representatives rejected many of the proposals the ATA submitted late Wednesday in an effort to reach a deal. The WGA is considering initiating legal action against the agencies for alleged conflict of interest and breach of fiduciary duty.

The guild on Friday made good on its promise to implement a new Agency Code of Conduct, which bans agents who represent WGA members from collecting packaging fees and working with agency-affiliated production entities, among other changes. The WGA and Association of Talent Agents have been trying to hammer out a new franchise agreement since February but the sides have wrestled over packaging, production and the scope of the WGA’s ability to regulate agencies who represent their members. The WGA told members to terminate their business ties to agents that do not sign the Code of Conduct agreement as of midnight PT Friday.

After the WGA announced the implementation of the code, a move delayed for six days last week while the sides made an effort to negotiate a deal, numerous talent agents reported receiving a steady, although not overwhelming, stream of termination letters from clients.

The biggest move by the ATA was the offer to give a small portion of its proceeds from packaging fees back to the guild to be distributed among lower-paid members of the television program’s staff. WGA negotiators rejected the offer, saying it still didn’t address the conflict of interest issue in packaging. “It is not a serious proposal and we reject it,” WGA West president David Goodman said in a statement issued to members Friday.

Sures, Young and Goodman had a tense moment when the WGA representatives voiced the oft-repeated opinion that agents were no longer incentivized to fight for high salaries for mid- and lower-level writers because they were incentivized to protect packaging fees paid by producers. Sures at one point directly asked Goodman, a UTA client, if he believed that his representatives did not fight for him. According to multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the meeting, Goodman’s response was something to the effect of “I don’t know.”

CAA’s Lourd similarly didn’t hold back his exasperation when Young made reference to packaging fees as a criminal violation for agents who have fiduciary responsibility to their clients. Lourd fired back that the guild’s rhetoric has been dangerous and that it has spread misinformation as part of its campaign to engage its 15,000 members on the agency franchise issue.

Another incendiary issue was the guild’s demand that agencies turn over all employment contracts and deal information for writer clients. Sures noted that UTA has been informed by several clients that they don’t want that information disclosed. The ATA has suggested that the WGA make contract disclosure a condition of guild membership, to take the onus off of individual representatives. The WGA has countered that the agencies refuse to accept the guild’s authority to monitor the economic issues for its members. At one point during Friday’s discussion, a frustrated Sures asked the WGA representatives why such a compromise had to be “so hard.”

The negotiating teams had booked a Beverly Hilton meeting room until midnight on Friday, but the gathering that began at 3 p.m. PT was over shortly after 4 p.m. A half-hour later, the WGA announced in an email blast to members that the Code of Conduct would take effect as of 12:01 am PT Saturday.

The WGA is asking members to use a specially created DocuSign link to send formal termination letters to agents. Members are instructed to send those signed documents to the guild directly, for delivery to the various agencies en masse in a few days, according to the WGA’s FAQ distributed Friday.

It’s not clear how vigorously the WGA intends to enforce the mandate for members to terminate their agents. Also unclear is how hyphenate talents who work as directors, producers and actors will handle the question of agency representation for work that falls outside the scope of writing. The guild is encouraging members to cut ties in all areas to demonstrate maximum solidarity. Industry observers will be watching next week to see how much, or how little, business gets done by agents.

The WGA has a draft lawsuit ready to file against ATA member companies, Young confirmed to Variety last week. The ATA is expected to file a countersuit. The ATA previously asserted that it would not negotiate with the WGA if the Code of Conduct was in force.

The agencies have predicted that regular business would be disrupted if the WGA forces terminations. The WGA has assembled a database designed to help writers find open staff assignments, and to help showrunners seek prospective writers. Prominent writers have been busy in the past few days assembling internal networks via email and social media to help ease the task of scouting and matchmaking process typically handled by agents.

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