After Being Labeled a "Cartel," Agents Present Counteroffer to Writers

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The WGA wants to prohibit packaging fees and affiliated production altogether.

A two-hour meeting Tuesday afternoon between the Writers Guild of America and the talent agencies was a “constructive” and “respectful” session, according to agency sources, during which the Association of Talent Agencies presented a set of counterproposals to the WGA titled “Statement of Choice.”

The document emphasizes the right of agency clients to be informed about the circumstances of proposed deals and their right to choose whether to accept the deals or not. In particular, the document says that it should be the writer’s choice whether to participate in projects that are subject to a packaging fee or that are to be produced through agency-affiliated companies.

“The ATA made a thoughtful and measured presentation,” said an agency-side source, referring to an opening statement by ATA president Jim Gosnell. Another agency source said that the meeting was “respectful” on both sides, while a third described the gathering as “constructive.” Another meeting is planned for Thursday afternoon.

In a statement, the WGA said, “Today the ATA responded to our opening proposals. Today’s session was a small step forward for the parties. There is another negotiating session scheduled with the ATA on Thursday, at which time the Guild will make a counterproposal in specific contract language. The response from the ATA is what we expected in a first proposal. All major issues are still on the table. The agencies couched their proposals as all about an individual writer’s ‘choice.’ However, theoretically writers already have that ‘choice.’ Their proposals require each individual to respond to a powerful agency — that is virtually no choice at all. The solutions in the new agreement need to be collective through the Guild, not individual.”

Thus, whether the ATA’s “choice” proposals will move the needle is an open question. The WGA wants to prohibit packaging fees and affiliated production altogether, and as recently as Tuesday morning it issued a report slamming the agencies as a “cartel” rife with self-interest. The guild has proposed a “Code of Conduct” containing those prohibitions; the ATA’s Statement of Choice is a counterproposal to the Code. The existing agreement between the ATA and WGA terminates April 6.

Some background: Television packaging generally involves putting together a showrunner with one or more star actors and perhaps another writer. In return, the agency receives a fee from the studio and waives its commission. This decades-old practice saves the clients money (at least initially) but, says the WGA, packaging fees create divided loyalties for the agency and can result in agencies making more on a show than their clients, or killing a project if a studio refuses to pay a packaging fee. The agencies argue that these situations are outliers, and that writers and other talent benefit from avoiding commissions. (The guild also objects to feature film packaging, which works somewhat differently but, says the union, raises similar issues.)

The other practice — affiliate production — is much more recent, and involves sister companies to the agencies that actually finance, produce and own content, displacing the role of traditional studios. The WGA says that’s a blatant conflict of interest — the agent becomes the employer — while the agencies point out that the affiliated production companies offer writers better deals than traditional studios do. But the WGA says that won’t last.

Read Gosnell’s statement here

Read the ATA proposal here

For more on this subject, visit THR's labor page.