The Writers Guild of America has made progress in recent weeks in enlisting small- and medium-sized Hollywood talent agencies to agree to its new rules of engagement for representing guild members.
The town’s five largest agencies have also made their own progress in recent weeks by resuming working relationships with dozens — if not hundreds, by some accounts — of writers and showrunners who formally fired their talent reps last April after the WGA implemented its new Agency Code of Conduct.
Industry insiders say an uneasy new normal has emerged wherein a host of prominent and seasoned writers in recent months have resumed regular communication and consultation on business issues with their former representatives at WME, CAA, UTA, ICM Partners and Paradigm. Meanwhile, sizable agencies including APA, Gersh Agency and Innovative Artists have signed on to the agency code since January.
Anecdotal reports from more than two dozen writers, agents, network and studio executives, managers and lawyers confirm that a gradual move back to business almost-as-usual for many of the industry’s most prominent and seasoned writers began to take place in late fall.
Guild members and industry executives are still unwilling to discuss the situation on the record out of concern about the possibility of the WGA imposing disciplinary action. But what began as stealthy conversations by phone and meetings in private places has evolved into agents once again accompanying onetime clients on meetings and making business-related calls on their behalf.
The volume of activity has spiked so much that one prominent entertainment lawyer quipped: “Can’t wait to see the fights over commissions that come out of all this.”
Representatives for the WME, CAA and UTA — three agencies that are wrapped up in litigation against the WGA over the new agency code — declined to comment. Multiple sources said incoming calls to agencies from former writer clients also increased after court hearings in December and January cast doubt on the strength of the guild’s legal position.
David Goodman, president of the WGA West, acknowledged that reports of writers returning to agents have been spreading. WGA leaders believe that some of this is spurred by agents making business inquiries without the permission of former clients, in an effort to pressure the guild and encourage other writers to subvert guild rules.
“I am in no way sensing that there’s been a huge change for writers,” Goodman told Variety. “I think there’s been a huge change in agencies pretending that writers didn’t fire them. I think the change has been the agencies calling to pitch writers that they no longer legally represent in the hopes of undermining the solidarity of the membership.”
Critics of the WGA’s agency campaign say the result is a bifurcated market in which showrunners and top talent are still essentially represented as before by heavyweight agencies with resources and connections. Writers with less experience or less-glittering résumés are looking to boutiques and the midsize firms that have agreed to ban packaging and affiliated-production activity. But even the boutiques are being more selective about who they take on, industry sources say.
Showrunners were already treading in a gray area, because by definition they work as both writers and producers, and in some cases as directors — all areas where the WGA has no authority to regulate. This has emboldened some who are frustrated with the guild’s tactics on the agency front to resume collaboration with Big Five agents on producing matters. Some WGA members say privately that they feel justified in working with agents who represented them in overall deals with studios that existed prior to April 13, as new transactions and considerations flow through those overall deals. Amid the Peak TV boom, numerous showrunners and senior writers are juggling multiple projects, some of which call for them to serve only as non-writing producers.
Goodman maintains that the WGA has not attempted to stretch its authority beyond the writing work done by members. But sources say the polarizing effect of the WGA-agency battle among guild members has led to an “Orwellian vibe” among members who don’t want to be ostracized by staunch guild supporters but are also worried about long- and short-term job prospects without being plugged in to a top talent agency.
The concern about the potential for the WGA to impose sanctions on members is strong. The guild has a committee established to look into reports of rule violations, as it does in other instances such as a work stoppage.
“That committee does its work in a variety of ways, slowly and carefully,” Goodman says. “We’ve talked to people about many of the rumors we’ve heard and looked into, and they have not been true.”