How the WGA’s Showdown With Talent Agencies Could Backfire

In Featured, Industry Insights, James Powers by Impact Admin

– By James Powers –

To the casual observer, it looks like Hollywood’s screenwriters really enjoy picking fights. Most of us probably remember the massive, 100-day writers’ strike that took place in 2007-2008 as the Writers Guild of America (WGA) demanded improvements to their customary contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Then a couple years ago, they very nearly went on strike again, though thankfully the studios were more flexible this time and everyone dodged that bullet.

Now, however, another showdown is looming – but this time, rather than fighting with the studios, the WGA now has a beef with a group that theoretically works alongside and supports them. Namely, the Association of Talent Agents (ATA). If things don’t go well (and so far they’re not going well), then April 7 could find all 10,000 or so members of the WGA firing their agents en masse. And that’s pretty much as big of a deal as it sounds – it’s a major flex on the WGA’s part, and could end up dramatically reshaping the power structure of Hollywood in their favor. But it could also backfire disastrously on the union – and as I look at all the moving pieces, the more likely that seems.

First I guess I should define some terms. The WGA, as indicated above, is the Writers Guild of America – the labor union for writers in film and TV. It’s always struck me as funny to think of writers unionizing the same way steelworkers or truckers might, but at the end of the day Hollywood is an industry like any other and needs to keep churning out product. And the raw capital to make that product comes, ultimately, from writers’ brains. So while in a way that puts writers at the bottom of the pyramid (as many of them will affirm), it also gives them a lot of leverage when they all work together. Which is precisely what they did in 2007, and what they’re strongly threatening to do again now.

The agents, for their part, theoretically work more or less the way you see them work in the movies – they represent the talent (be that a writer, actor, or director) to prospective employers and negotiate deals on their behalf. In return, they get 10% of what their client makes from the job. It’s cliche, but the idea actually is kind of like the smooth-talking suit who puffs on a cigarette and loudly proclaims to Studio Executive X that Up-And-Coming Starlet Y is “really gonna knock yer socks off!” Cue jazz hands, etc etc. Or in the case of a writer, they’ll shop around their client’s work to various studios or networks, trying to persuade them to hire the writer for whatever random project is in development at the time. “Oh so you want The Walking Dead meets Mean Girls? No prob, the kid could do that in his sleep!” Cue jazz hands again.

But again, that’s all theoretical. The reality is a bit more complicated, as reality tends to be. Booking one client at a time and collecting 10% of their fee only goes so far toward making a profit, so since the late ‘70s agents have supplemented that with what is called packaging. The bigger the names you have involved with a film, the bigger its chance of financial success, so studios and production companies like to have “packages” of marketable stars, directors and sometimes writers attached to their films from the get-go whenever possible. Agents have gotten in the habit of arranging these packages for the studios, who pay pretty handsomely for the service. But this makes things a bit weird – if agents are receiving payment from both talent and studios, which one is really their boss? Seems like an obvious conflict of interest when you think about it, but the terms of agreement between the ATA and the WGA have ok’ed this practice for decades, so it must work out somehow.

What suddenly changed? Well…nothing. Nothing sudden, that is. But at the risk of beating a dead horse (cuz the topic keeps coming up), the film and TV landscape has changed a lot recently, and it’s nothing like it was in 1976 when those initial terms were drawn up. For a year the ATA and WGA have been prepping to update the code of conduct that governs their relationship. But now that the old code’s expiration date (April 6) is practically here, they can’t agree.

The WGA claims that agencies have been doing the opposite of their job, prioritizing deals with studios and treating the needs of individual clients as secondary – so they’re demanding that the revamped code finally put the kibosh on packaging. This feels especially crucial now: with film and TV content cropping up in ever-more diverse forms, the number of jobs available to writers has skyrocketed, but so has their competition. Having a network-savvy agent getting your work out there is more important than ever, but even more important than that is a network-savvy agent who is going to prioritize you as his client, and not leave you on the back burner while he pursues a package deal as his side-hustle.

The agencies, for their part, have come to depend on packaging as a big chunk of their revenue, so they’re not super excited to stop the practice. Just as packaging has been detrimental to writers in the new landscape, it’s been something of a saving grace for the agencies – even making some of the bigger ones so influential in getting films made that they’ve sprouted their own affiliate production companies. ATA executive director Karen Stuart asserts that, in so doing, they’ve managed to put a little bit of a check on the power of the major studios and bring financing to career-launching films (such as Whiplash, Room and Manchester by the Sea) that might not have seen the light of day otherwise. In short, the practice of packaging has enabled agencies to branch out beyond the world of repping talent and into that of actually producing content – something that’s definitely desirable for them in a world where all sorts of businesses are now pouring money into content production. Where the WGA sees a conflict of interest, the ATA sees a diversified portfolio, and claims that the WGA is just being stubborn, using its political power to block the industry’s natural progress.  

Regardless of whether you sympathize with the writers or the agents, it’s definitely true that the WGA has pulled out the big guns, and if history is any indication they aren’t afraid to use them. But this time, the big guns could really backfire. Come April 7, if the ATA hasn’t conceded to their demands, the Guild will require all its members to fire their agents – at least any agents sticking to the ATA’s terms, which is most of them. The scary thing is that there’s really no way to know ahead of time whether enough WGA members will actually follow through; or if they do, that the move will really be in their best interest. Sure, Jane Writer would get in big trouble with the union if she disobeys them and holds onto her agent after April 7. But at the same time, she could get in big trouble if she fires her agent. Staffing season (basically the TV equivalent of draft season) is fast approaching, and Jane Writer probably doesn’t feel great about the prospect of braving that storm without her agent. The WGA is doing its best to find alternate methods of connecting unrepresented members to jobs. But again, it’s a big gamble: they’re patching together an impromptu system that may or may not work when it needs to.

If the majority of WGA members do get rid of their agents, but the Guild’s patchwork safety net doesn’t hold, Hollywood could find itself in a snafu not unlike the one that happened in 2007. Ultimately this would probably give the agencies the high ground: they can get by on their rosters of actors and directors while the writers have been floundering, and the Guild would have to admit defeat and come crawling back back to them.

On the other hand, the majority of WGA members could decide that they’d rather keep their agents and face the union’s wrath. After all, said wrath can only do so much when it’s diffused over thousands and thousands of writers. In this case the ATA decisively wins, and the WGA loses a ton of credibility not only with Hollywood as a whole, but with their own members as well. Big ouch.

On the other other hand, there’s the scenario that the WGA is betting on: the writers all walk out on their agents and get plugged into jobs by other means; and the agencies find themselves crippled without this big swath of their clients and are forced to meet the Guild’s demands. Could happen – but I’m skeptical. The whole reason this snafu is happening in the first place is because the agencies allegedly don’t prioritize their writer clients. Which suggests that they don’t really need their writer clients that much in the first place. Hmm…interesting.

On the other other other hand, there’s the highly improbable scenario where everyone gets what they want. The writers all walk out on their agents; the union’s improvised safety net turns out to successfully fill the gap, proving that writers no longer need agents; and the agencies manage to stay afloat by repping actors and directors (also by packaging and producing to their hearts’ content, without the Guild saying anything about it. Neato).

And then…finally… there’s the situation where everyone loses. The writers bail on their agents, they can’t find jobs without them, meanwhile the agents can’t get projects for their other clients because the writers aren’t writing them, and everything is kind of a smoking disaster until both parties admit that they have to work together or die. For my money, this last one seems both most probable and most preferable. Sounds like a great teachable moment for everyone involved.

But in any case, note how in three of these five scenarios, the WGA takes a serious hit while the ATA weathers the storm. The Guild’s grievances strike me as legitimate, and their threat is definitely intimidating, but ultimately it isn’t prudent and I think it is likely to bite them. Lately it seems trendy, in most all circles, to resolve conflict by making a big bold statement and refusing any compromise. Anger, not empathy, is what supposedly wins the day (golly why do I feel like I was just talking about this?) – but how often does it actually work. The WGA is right: It does seem pretty obvious that packaging practices make for a conflict of interest with agents. At the same time it seems equally obvious that, in a Hollywood ecosystem driven more and more by content and (somewhat) less so by star power, it might behoove the agencies to branch out beyond just representing individual talent and keep exploring production.

I don’t know what a successful compromise between the two parties might look like – but it seems highly doubtful that such a thing will happen within the next week. So hey, on the plus side, we’ll probably have a fun media circus going on around this time next week. Might be just as entertaining to watch as any movie.

About the Author

James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.


Article Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, WritersGuild-Strike2007-signs.jpg by ‘Here in Van Nuys’, Author ‘Andy from Los Angeles, US’, license cc-by-2.0. Image has been edited with crops, blur, and desaturation.