In the Battle Between Writers and Agents, TV Packaging Hurts Women and People of Color (Guest Column)

Keli Goff - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Subject

Packaging shows has provided a wealth of opportunity, but for a limited group of people, argues Keli Goff, writer and producer of the Netflix documentary 'Reversing Roe.'

Years ago a physician made me feel silly for expressing concern about the safety of a medication I'd been prescribed. Only later was it revealed that the birth control in question had harmed thousands of women and that physicians had on occasion been paid to peddle various forms of contraception to patients. I've reflected on the indignation I felt back then, during the current agency-WGA dispute over packaging.

Despite their protests to the contrary, in this case agents are the doctors ­— doctors who co-own drug companies. Writers are the patients. It's not realistic to expect agencies to remain loyal to our interests because they make more in pharmaceutical company profit than they ever will from an individual patient.

Writers at the top of the food chain may feel the current system works for them. But that's like saying our country's educational system works just fine while you write a half-a-million-dollar check to buy your kid's way into college. Speaking as a writer of color and woman who is not at the top of the food chain, I know very few writers who believe the way agencies currently do business works for them.

Many compare their relationships with their agents to one with an emotionally abusive partner. They know it's wrong but are terrified to leave. Writers of color I know say their agents didn't get them their first or second job and rarely their third. They are dismissive and ignore phone calls, yet writers are reluctant to nudge them to actually earn their 10 percent for fear of being labeled "difficult," a moniker that damages women and minorities more than others. (I was warned by some that writing this piece could earn me that label.) The fear is legitimate because, despite Hollywood's liberal bona fides, major agencies are not bastions of diversity, and as we learned from the Weinstein and Moonves sagas, what powerful white men say about you behind closed doors matters.

Some women and writers of color I know were lured to larger agencies with promises that they would have access to prominent talent for packaging opportunities, yet either those opportunities never materialized or they felt pressured into deals that were not beneficial or what they wanted, but that they signed because it felt safer than rejoining the ranks of unrepresented minority talent. Packaging has thrived and provided a wealth of opportunity, but just for a limited group of people. Those people are rarely the ones who didn't already possess some privilege or power. It's ironic that so many powerful people in Hollywood consider the lack of racial diversity, gender parity, transparency and adherence to basic ethical standards to be emblematic of the Trump administration's failures. Yet for much of our industry that describes business as usual.

I've recently heard amusing tales of agents calling clients they've barely talked to during the past year to persuade them that they have their best interests at heart. It's like your freeloading, verbally abusive boyfriend finding out you're on Tinder and calling to say he loves you, and even if he doesn't, you can't do any better.

Many writers now realize they can't do any worse.

Keli Goff is a television writer, a producer of the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe and a contributor to KCRW’s Left, Right & Center. She is repped by APA and likes her agents.

This story first appeared in the April 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.