For the past few months, there has been a bitter stand-off between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents, the fallout of which could mean that thousands of writers in Hollywood will be firing their agents within the next week.
While the back story is quite complicated and drawn-out, the short version is that at midnight on Saturday, a forty-year-old agreement between the WGA and the ATA will expire, and there’s no new deal in place, as negotiations have broken down over money.
The main point of contention between the WGA and the ATA is what’s known as ‘packaging fees’. These are amounts of money that agents earn when they negotiate with studios to ‘package up’ actors, writers, directors and other talent to work together on a project.
The Writers Guild claims that the rise of packaging fees means that agents can make good money for themselves by negotiating deals with studios, so there is no real incentive to negotiate profitable deals on behalf of their clients, creating a conflict of interest.
Writers face another problem thanks to the rise of streaming services like Netflix, who typically order much shorter seasons of TV shows than old-fashioned broadcast networks. This means that while there’s theoretically plenty of work to go round, their actual salaries are shrinking.
Come the deadline of midnight April 6 in the US, the Writers Guild want a new agreement that bars talent agencies from taking packaging fees, and per Variety, its members voted 7,882 in favor to 392 against in favour of a new, stricter Code of Conduct for agents.
A-List writers like Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Jenji Kohan (Orange Is The New Black), Mike Schur (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Oliver Stone (your dad’s favourite movie, probably) and Tina Fey (30 Rock) have all indicated they support such a code.
Major talent agencies, on the other hand, appear to be reluctant to give up packaging fees, probably because of how much money there is to be made, and in spite of several meetings between the WGA and the ATA, the two groups have been unable to strike a compromise.
Per reports in trade publication Deadline, there are “no formal talks” planned before the Saturday night cutoff, although David Young said that the Writers Guild will meet with the ATA “when they make a meaningful reply to our last two offers.”
Karen Stuart of the ATA fired back: “The time is long past for simply pushing paper across the table. Let us know when you and your committee are prepared to have a negotiation that addresses all of the outstanding issues.”
If the agreement lapses and a new one is not put in place, ATA talent agencies will not be allowed to represent WGA writers, and procedures are in place for a mass-firing as early as Sunday, with letters of termination to be delivered to agencies in bulk.
What could all this mean? Well, for one, it will be a lot more difficult for studios to hire writers for the coming pilot season. One industry insider told Variety that high-profile writers with established deals and jobs will likely be fine, but that lower-level people may suffer.
“Who’s it going to hurt? Staff writers and executive story editors,” the insider said. “Those are about the only writers who depend on their agents for jobs and for negotiating writer fees”