WGA Outplays Talent Agencies as Precursor to Next Year’s Tough Studio Talks (Column)

The 95%-vote majority in the WGA’s referendum on imposing a tough new code of conduct for talent agents sends a clear signal to the industry. The WGA is gearing up for tough negotiations in the coming year with the major studios on the master film and TV contract that expires May 1, 2020.

During the past 12 months, the guild has deftly revved up its organizing infrastructure around the agency franchise agreement talks. An obscure contract that hadn’t been touched in 46 years became the focus of a wildly successful WGA membership outreach campaign. That’s in part because the guild’s drive to reform the Artists Manager Basic Agreement of 1976 came from the grassroots — a steady stream of complaints from members about what appear to be systemic abuses of the TV packaging process, a creative template for compensation invented by William Morris Agency in the days of radio.

Whatever the impetus, the outcome is clear. The WGA has outplayed the talent agencies in framing the terms of the debate on the packaging fees and agency-affiliated production ventures. That means the guild has flexed major muscle in the industry just as it prepares to go into battle on talks for a new Minimum Basic Agreement covering film and TV work.

The timing and trajectory of the agency franchise reform push recalls how the WGA fired up the membership base in 2006 with its accelerated campaign to organize reality TV producers. The strike the WGA waged against UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model” galvanized members a little more than a year before the guild initiated the 100-day strike that started in November 2007. It also coincided with the arrival of David Young as WGA West executive director. From the start of his tenure, Young has taken a more aggressive tack in negotiations with institutional Hollywood, to the frustration of many in the industry and to the delight of his members, at all levels of the Hollywood writer pay scale.

Prominent scribes have used the megaphone of social media to rally support for writers to link arms and demand reforms, even drawing support among those who have had longstanding, friendly and enormously profitable relationships with their agents. The tone of the some of the anti-agency rhetoric and commentary from the creative community has felt personal and below-the-belt to many agents who have helped build the careers of today’s A-list showrunners and screenwriters.

The high turnout in the membership vote gives momentum to the guild to impose its own Code of Conduct on talent agents if the guild and negotiators for the Association of Talent Agents can’t come to terms this week on a new deal. The current agreement expires at midnight PT on April 6. Unlike a labor action involving the studios, there’s not much certainty of what exactly will change on April 7.

Will the guild strongly enforce members severing ties with agents that won’t sign the code? Will members police themselves? Will employment opportunities and dealmaking grind to a halt, as the agencies assert? The guild’s stated plan to create digital databases to serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for employment is seen as a reach even by many WGA supporters. At the same time, there are no shortage of organic social networks that can help connect Hollywood writers.

The real X factor at this point is whether the guild and agencies have the stomach and the resources to wage a costly legal war over their differences. If the agencies hope to head off litigation, they’ll surely be forced to find a bigger concession than the current offer to make the packaging process an opt-in or opt-out question for writers with greater transparency. There’s a big school of thought on both sides of this fight that the real parameters of a deal won’t present themselves until a few hours before the deadline.

Regardless of how the agency franchise agreement battle plays out, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is on notice. The spirit of solidarity and loyalty is running high among WGA members at a time when the broader industry is being buffeted by massive disruption and consolidation. Although the studios would seem to have a stronger hand in labor talks than ever, as the number of major employers shrink, the WGA is busy restocking its arsenal with boots on the ground and fists in the air.

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