×

Divisions in Writers Guild Stir as the Battle With Agents Drags on

The Writers Guild of America has flexed its considerable muscle in mounting the campaign to ban talent agencies from collecting packaging fees and expanding corporately into the production-distribution arena.

But in doing so, the WGA has exacerbated long-simmering tensions among its members that could handicap future efforts to rally the scribe tribe around guild priorities, such as next year’s master TV and film contract renegotiation with the major studios.

The guild’s fire-your-agents mandate that came down on April 12, after talks between the WGA and the Assn. of Talent Agents broke off, has heightened the divide between screenwriters and TV writers, and it has put a klieg light on the growing income gap among its members. Like SAG-AFTRA and DGA, the WGA has the challenge of managing a union in which the top echelon of its roughly 15,000 members (across the WGA West and the WGA East) pull in upwards of seven figures a year, while a much larger percentage on the lower end may not work as a writer at all in any given year.

One of the biggest gripes among writers has been that the break between WGA members and agents threatens to disproportionately hurt members who are not among the WGA’s top earners. Prominent showrunners and screenwriters threw their support behind the agency reform campaign. But as the standoff heads into its third month, there is anger that some of the most vocal supporters of the guild’s campaign have been those who enjoy the guaranteed income of an overall deal with a studio or production agency. That means they are far less reliant on the help of an agent to find work because they are already under exclusive contract.

The intense focus on the granular details of how writers — and their agencies — get paid has also raised a philosophical question about whether showrunners qualify as management or labor, and whether they belong in the WGA at all. Showrunners are managers in the sense that they have the power to hire and fire and set the salaries for the other writers who work for them. But the anger aroused in recent weeks has spurred talk of an effort to sort out this conundrum with the National Labor Relations Board or in the courts.

The talent agencies zeroed in on the haves-and-have-nots factor in positioning their latest offer to the guild as a benefit for “working writers,” which is code for mid- and lower-level scribes. The ATA proposes to share 2% of agency packaging-fee income on profitable series with writers on those shows who would not otherwise receive any backend windfall.

Many writers who primarily work in film have been angered by the feeling that top TV scribes do not pay their fair share when it comes to WGA dues, which amount to 1.5% of a member’s income from writing.

For showrunners and other top TV writers, those dues are calculated based on their WGA scale earnings rather than their total compensation for working on a show. That’s because earnings beyond the WGA scale fees that are laid out in the guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement are typically classified as payment for the producing aspects of work on a series.

Screenwriters, on the other hand, rarely have an opportunity to isolate their writing earnings from their producing ones. They typically pay dues on the full amount, beyond WGA scale, because the work is defined entirely as writing. The gap is made clear by the numbers in the annual earnings breakdown reported by the WGA West.

In 2017, the most recent data available, the WGA West reported 4,670 members who worked for TV and digital platforms and delivered total earnings from writing of $976.3 million. By comparison, 1,940 writers working in film delivered $420.9 million in writing earnings in 2017. The fact that screenwriters delivered nearly half of the earnings of the TV side — even though far fewer screenwriters worked compared with TV writers — is a festering source of resentment at a time when top showrunners writers are making headlines by commanding eye-popping nine-figure overall deals.

This hornet’s nest of frustrations and conflicting priorities has been stirred up by the WGA’s aggressive campaign to cast agents as lazy, greedy and corrupt. These irritants will not be easily soothed even if the agency standoff eases in the near future.

By multiple accounts, CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd delivered opening remarks worthy of Tom Hanks in the third act of a courtroom drama on June 7 when the
WGA and the ATA met for their first negotiating session since April 11. Speaking on behalf of ATA members, Lourd emphasized that the biggest threat to writer income over the long haul lies with the seismic shifts underway among the handful of media giants that dominate employment for Hollywood writers.

“The unspoken strategy of these multinational content and distribution companies is to drive prices down and wipe out ownership for writers and creators,” Lourd said. “This is happening in real time as we’ve sat here in limbo for these last two months, fighting with each other as opposed to cooperating with each other to face this real challenge.”

More Biz

  • Honoree Yusef Salaam poses at the

    Yusef Salaam Signs With CAA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Yusef Salaam, one of the men who was exonerated after being wrongfully convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, has signed with CAA for representation in all areas of business worldwide. The story of Salaam and the four other men — then boys — who were wrongfully convicted was recently told in Netflix’s miniseries [...]

  • Kim Kardashian West Kimono

    Kim Kardashian West's 'Kimono' Shapewear Sparks Backlash

    West announced yesterday that she was launching a line of form-fitting shapewear in nine different skin tones and a range of sizes. But the name of the reality star’s latest business venture — “Kimono” — is already wrapped up in controversy.Kimonos are Japanese robes traditionally worn at formal affairs, prompting some to accuse the businesswoman [...]

  • Discovery Corporate New Logo

    Discovery Faces Backlash From Unscripted Producers After Shift in Series Payment Process

    Discovery Inc. is facing a backlash from the unscripted production community following a shift in the cable giant’s protocol for paying for programming. During the past year, Discovery has implemented a new system that calls for the company to pay producers for shows after all episodes and related material for a given season have been [...]

  • Wendy Goldstein Named Republic Records President,

    Republic Records Names Wendy Goldstein President of West Coast Creative

    Republic Records advances Wendy Goldstein to President of West Coast Creative, label co-founders and chief executives Monte and Avery Lipman announced today. Goldstein has overseen the company’s Santa Monica office since 2017 as EVP of Republic Records. Over the past year, she headed up the label’s efforts for Ariana Grande’s  back-to-back No. 1 debuts for the singer’s “Sweetener” and “Thank U, Next” albums, and [...]

  • The Traitor

    MMC Studios, One of Germany's Biggest Production Facilities, Changes Hands

    Germany’s MMC Studios, which has hosted such recent international productions as Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller “7500” and Marco Bellocchio’s Cannes competition film “The Traitor,” is changing hands. Frankfurt-based investment company Novum Capital has acquired the facility in Cologne, one of Germany’s biggest film and TV studios, from Luxembourg private equity fund Lenbach Equity Opportunities I. The [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content