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In an alternate Hollywood storyline where the pandemic hadn’t upended the industry, the 2020 narrative would likely have centered on another development: the end of war between writers and agents.
To recap a multiphase, three-year-long conflict: In April 2018, the Writers Guild of America put agencies on notice that it would terminate the Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement of 1976, a four-decade-old deal that regulated talent agency representation of writers. It proposed a new agreement between the WGA and the Association of Talent Agents that would remove what writers saw as conflicts of interest, specifically agencies taking packaging fees instead of commissions and having large stakes in affiliate production companies.
And after failing to come to an agreement, thousands of writers fired their agents in April 2019, and multiple lawsuits followed. From there, industry-shaping negotiations would lead to each agency eventually making its own pact with the guild. A few boutiques reached franchise agreements early on, then Gersh and APA. The others didn’t make deals until after the pandemic hit stateside. But for the larger agencies, the deals were more complex and the long-standing systems harder to untangle. In June, UTA became the first major agency to reach a deal and, in August, ICM followed. CAA and WME would join in December and February, respectively, and agreed to sunset the practice of packaging and divest down their stakes in affiliate production companies.
While Hollywood is working on inclusion in its upper echelons, during the standoff, negotiators in these rooms were still predominantly white men.
“The thing that stood out the most in the beginning was really the lack of women in the room,” says Courtney Braun, Endeavor general counsel, client representation, who negotiated on behalf of WME. “In this day and age that was sort of shocking to me, and it really reinforces that we need to continue to hire women and people from diverse backgrounds. You hope this is once in a lifetime, but you hope if there is a next time the face of these discussions is different.”
A handful of women, including Braun, played key roles throughout the talks and related litigation. Here, four of them share with THR how to apply the negotiation skills they utilized during the heated situation and others they’ve picked up over the years.
1. MAKE SURE EVERYONE ON YOUR SIDE OF THE TABLE IS ON THE SAME PAGE. Before cutting ties with agents, the WGA held a vote in March 2019 wherein 95 percent of its membership approved the move.
“We weren’t going to fight for something members didn’t want,” says Meredith Stiehm, co-chair of the WGA’s negotiating committee. “Be really clear about what you want and at what point you’re willing to say, ‘No thanks’ and walk away. It’s a leap of faith, but if you can really do that, it’s powerful.”
Braun agrees. “The internal negotiation has to happen before the external every step of the way,” she says. “If things go south, you’ve set expectations, and people know that’s a possibility.”
2. BE WILLING TO ADAPT. Though the agencies began negotiating as a collective in collaboration with the ATA, their individual business needs ultimately led to one-on-one talks with the WGA. “We were all coming from a different place,” says Braun. “As the company with the largest affiliated entity, our negotiation looked different from the others.”
Adds Niloofar Bina Shepherd, an executive in the office of the general counsel at CAA: “The better you do at listening and understanding, the better you’re able to adapt. Otherwise, you just have people in a room repeating what they want and not finding a way to the middle.”
3. IGNORE BLUSTER AND FIND COMMON GROUND. Julia Johnson, who at the time of the guild negotiations was with APA but is now general counsel at ICM, adds, “I’ve had bosses who rarely raise their voice, using info and humor to persuade, and those who were screamers and who were personal in their negotiations. The biggest mistake people make is when they think there is only one style they need to copy for success.”
Shepherd says her background as an employment lawyer helps her focus on the person across the table, regardless of their personality. “The human aspect of that I think is actually quite important,” she says. “It’s understanding who’s on the other side, what their goals are and finding creative ways to align what they want with what you want.”
4. KNOW WHO HAS THE LEVERAGE. It’s no coincidence that, nearly a full year after writers left behind their agents, the dominoes started to fall, and larger agencies began to make deals after the pandemic ravaged Hollywood businesses and many agencies faced layoffs and pay cuts. The pandemic was “harder on the other side,” notes Stiehm. “Our livelihoods were not threatened the way I presume the agencies’ were. We were kind of the lucky ones in the pandemic because people were still buying content, and we were still working.”
When there’s considerable distance between parties’ ultimate goals, and it’s not “just about working around the edges to make [a deal] polished and shiny,” Johnson emphasizes the importance of “patience, perseverance and persuasiveness with relevant information.”
5. NOT ALL IMPASSES ARE INSURMOUNTABLE. “Big change is possible,” says Stiehm. “We were told over and over again, ‘You can’t win. You can’t take on the agents. They’re too powerful.’ We shot high and stuck to our guns. Things are impossible until they’re not.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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