Gavin Polone: This Is the Beginning of the End of TV Agents
A culture change is happening in Hollywood as old-school networking and technology are making television lit reps obsolete and tipping the WGA-ATA fight in favor of the writers.
Six weeks ago, I wrote in this publication that I thought the Writers Guild of America would have to retreat from the battle with the talent agents over package fees and agency affiliates producing movies and TV. Now I think I may have been wrong. The WGA is currently winning this fight in terms of messaging, maintaining the resolve of its membership and demonstrating a long-term strategy that has pierced the clouds of uncertainty and revealed a path to achieving all of its goals. Further, and more significantly, an unintended consequence of this fight has materialized: a possible future — a near future — where most working writers don't have agents at all.
Yes, there have been non-agent voices who have chastised the WGA's handling of this clash. Most notably, Jon Robin Baitz, whose well-circulated letter to the guild offers much detail on what a great career he's had, including having written an episode of The West Wing that, incredibly, did not have to be rewritten before production. Though I don't understand how his exceptional success writing one episode for Aaron Sorkin relates to the issue at hand, he did describe how his career was enhanced by "the endless hours, the conversations, the hand-holding" provided by his agents. Baitz also illustrates the value of the deal he made with CAA's studio on a new Amazon show, where he managed to hire three WGA producer-level writers and, even more laudably, a "diverse female" assistant whom he elevated to staff writer. (I'm guessing that had CAA not been able to finance TV shows, he'd have to hire two non-WGA producers and a white guy staff writer?)
Baitz then goes on to denounce the "bellicose" tone the leadership of the guild has taken, which has alienated the agents who, they should remember, "are humans and have emotions, families, parents and sensitivities, just like us." He warns that the WGA leaders could, dangerously, "tear down extant structures, simply in the name of 'fairness.' " Baitz finishes by suggesting that if they don't take advantage of having the agents "listening" at "the table," there could be "tragic consequences."
As an analyst of this dispute, Baitz has proved himself to be an amazing West Wing writer. While I don't dispute his anecdotal, narrow view of his lovely career, he ignores the binary nature of conflicted interest in representation: Either it is a conflict or it isn't. He also seems to reject that one of the central tenets of our society is that we must, in fact, tear down some extant structures in the name of fairness.
The conflict of interest at issue has had the effect of keeping writers' pay down just when it should be rising. And, going forward, with agencies becoming buyers of their clients' services, it will get way worse. I'm sure that many deals offered by CAA's and Endeavor's nascent studios are fair, or, most likely, more than fair, as Baitz also indicated in his essay. It is very common that businesses trying to establish themselves offer great deals in the beginning but later, after they have driven off the competition, change course and focus on increased profitability. Remember in 2014 when Netflix's standard service cost $8.99? Well, it is $12.99 now. If that price had risen with inflation, it would be $9.64. In the future, when the major agencies are part of public companies and pressured to increase profits on a quarterly basis to keep their share price moving in the right direction, it will become necessary to decrease costs; reducing compensation for employees is the surest way to boost the bottom line of any business. How much easier can it be to reduce the fees paid to writers working for a studio than if that studio is also charged with negotiating the deals on behalf of those same writers?
The WGA's message that this is about gaining unconflicted representation, with no middle ground possible, is clear and has resonated, while what the various agency leaders have been saying is muddled and sometimes comical. The Association of Talent Agents and individual agents alternatively have put forward that this dispute will cause "chaos," that the writers have forgotten that the agents are their friends, and that the agents have "invested" in the writers' careers, so they deserve extra compensation for that. Of those points, maybe the friend part is true, if we're talking about the kind of friends who don't necessarily have their "friend's" best financial interests at heart.
The ATA also has offered to give the writers an insignificant portion of agency package fees and has presented a set of "Agency Standards," which would supposedly give writer clients greater peace of mind but, in fact, are laughably banal. It's as if McDonald's were to put forth a written promise that its employees will always, unless otherwise directed by the customer, place hamburgers between the two halves of the bun and, should the customer pay with currency in a denomination greater than the cost of the meal, they will then return the difference, immediately, to the customer as change.
While winning the messaging battle is important, it will not deliver the coup de grâce: It just keeps the membership in line while the knife is sharpened and then moved to the enemy's throat, both of which take time. The first move, as I suggested in my last column, is to sue the agencies under various statutes that relate to the agencies' conflicted behavior. This the WGA has now done. But to prevail, as I'm sure they will, they will need to surmount various motions to dismiss and other preliminary challenges by the ATA's litigators, which is a sluggish process. Eventually, guild lawyers will have the opportunity to pore over the thousands and thousands of emails related to package fees, and some will surely turn up an ugly "this is an important show to the agency, so stop negotiating and close your client's deal now" view of the agency business, as well as other big client vs. little client conflicts that will be quite uncomfortable for the agents to defend. Even if there are just a few of these emails in a sea of innocuous messages, the point about conflicts of interest will be proved and the WGA membership will be emboldened to maintain their demand that the agencies sign the code of conduct, as drafted.
The lawsuit will not be an end in itself; it will just support the guild's stance in the minds of the public and, more important, further strengthen the resolve of the members. It is time and technology that will put the smackdown on the current mode of representation for TV and movie writers.
When I look at the list of projects on which I'm working now, I see only one where I was introduced to the writer by an agent. The rest were either people I already knew or were known to the network or studio from another project and the executive on the project suggested we hire them. In all likelihood, if I had an open assignment right now, I'd call one of six or seven writers I've gone to in the past. And if that didn't work, I'd probably talk to other producers and executives to get ideas and I'd scroll through IMDb to find those who wrote movies and shows that I liked. One thing I would not do is stop developing. Other producers won't either. Studios and networks will hire from the lists of people they've worked with before, or tried to work with before.
One thing is for sure: Television networks will not decide to take a year off from delivering their almost 500 shows for public consumption because agents aren't able to help them find writers. This means just as many writers are going to get hired, with or without the involvement of agents. Maybe the mix of who is and isn't hired will be different, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing and, in the end, the same number of WGA members will be working.
But what about more junior, lesser-known writers? That is where technology comes in.
I asked an experienced showrunner/high-level producer, who is currently looking to get staffed, to show me the WGA's Staffing Submission System, which allows writers to submit themselves to three TV shows that are looking to hire. From my seat, the system was easy to use and worked fluidly but clearly lacked needed functionality. "I know that you need to submit to 20 shows to get three meetings to get one offer," she told me, "so, from a numbers perspective, it isn't enough." This producer already had offers and wasn't relying on the WGA app to get her a job. Though this program is impressive, the WGA needs to further build it out to make it effective, providing the ability to make more submissions (probably setting a time limit on when submissions expire and new ones are permitted) and, critically, the ability to follow up. One crucial duty of agents is to bug submittees that they should read a script that has previously been sent, which they probably do in 3 percent of cases, and the WGA's system doesn't yet surmount this very low standard of agenting. My friend also said that, even if there were a follow-up mechanism on the app, she would feel uncomfortable pestering someone about reading her material. I then asked her: If I had told her 10 years ago that she should use a computer program to directly hook up with some private person whose house she could stay in when traveling to another city, would she have done that? She admitted that she would have thought it creepy and dangerous but acknowledged that she has used Airbnb and would continue to — she also told me that when she does, she can't help but snoop through the owner's stuff.
One thing we all know is that technology gets better with time until we don't know how we could have lived without it. Years ago, I would routinely use a travel agent, but now, though I assume they still exist, the idea of walking into an office or calling someone on a phone to plan my vacation seems ridiculous. I bought my current car online without ever sitting in it. I found the house I now live in on Trulia and I may sell it on Redfin using that site's 1 percent online system, which it claims sells houses faster and for higher prices than with a conventional, annoying real estate broker. The WGA's Staffing System will improve quickly by offering more submissions and ways to follow up on them. I would think that they'll then come up with a function that works for submitting pilot ideas as well. And, sooner than later, the guild will do the same for feature film assignments and spec scripts. It will just take time and the endurance of the membership.
Even those writers who are grumbling now — and there are a few — about wishing this struggle would end, will change their minds if they start getting jobs and don't have to give up 10 percent of their pay on those jobs. Yes, their agents were their friends and "hand-holders," but seeing that having an agent-free career is a cost-effective option may create the vision of an attractive future. It is true that agentless writers will have less hand-holding, but perhaps with the knowledge that their deals were negotiated to the fullest of their potential by unconflicted negotiators, they will not need as much hand-holding to begin with. And when all that comes to pass, the WGA membership may look back on how their jobs used to be procured and negotiated in the same way I now look back on days gone by when, if I needed a jug of Tide, I had to drive to Kmart (Wiki it), buy the detergent and bring it home; and then I think about how grateful I am now that I can 1-Click it on Amazon and know that the same product will show up that day, for less money, right at my door.
Gavin Polone is a film and TV producer and a talent manager as well as a former agent. He's a producer of A Dog's Journey (May 17).
This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.