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A furious David Simon, creator of such famed series as The Wire, Treme and HBO’s The Deuce, criticized his agency, CAA, in an obscenity-laden blog post Monday, alleging that the firm packaged his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (which became the basis of the 1993-99 NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street) without his knowledge or consent. As a result, he alleges, CAA represented both sides of the 1990 sale of his book in an “overt and untenable conflict-of-interest” that Simon suggests left him with the short end of the stick in his first Hollywood venture.
Simon’s post comes in the context of a bitter fight between the talent agencies and the Writers Guild of America, which intends to prohibit packaging fees (and affiliated production companies) starting April 7, when the existing agreement between the WGA and Association of Talent Agencies terminates. An ATA counterproposal would instead require disclosure of packaging arrangements to writer clients and informed consent. (The counterproposal would not apply to book authors, such as Simon was, as book writing is not under WGA jurisdiction.) A meeting Monday between the ATA and WGA led to little progress toward a negotiated solution, but the guild said the two sides would meet again later in the week.
“On a lie of omission, CAA…made millions and millions of dollars and did so by undercutting my negotiation with [A-list director Barry Levinson, whose production company bought the rights] and failing to inform me of the absolute conflict of interest…[and] breach of fiduciary duty,” Simon writes. He says that his book-to-film agent (whom he names) resisted negotiating a better deal than Levinson’s initial offer, which seemed “a little light.” CAA did not respond to a request for comment.
In packaging, an agency forgoes commissioning the client and instead receives a fee from the television studio, which can amount to massive sums if the series has a long run and is sold into aftermarkets such as syndication, DVD and foreign broadcast or cable. Simon suggests that package fees may even rise to a criminal violation.
“Packaging is a lie,” he writes. “It is theft. It is fraud. In the hands of the right U.S. attorney, it might even be prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering. It’s that fucking ugly…. It’s corrupt.”
The WGA has posted anecdotes recounting alleged abuses in packaging and other areas. Unlike Simon’s post, they’re anonymous, undated and generally brief. The ATA on Monday released a study that asserts that writers are better off economically with packaging, by virtue of not having to pay commissions, than they would be if they paid commissions but received the front-end packaging fees from the studios. But the study did not examine backend packaging fees, which are the portion that can become highly lucrative in exceptional cases. Whether studios would pay any of the packaging fees to writers is the subject of fierce disagreement between the WGA and ATA.
Calling his book-to-film agent “a fuckfail of a fiduciary pratfall,” Simon recounts that he spoke with the agent after learning of the dual representation from his television agent (who was not involved — and who is still at CAA and is still Simon’s agent).
“Absent any evidence of informed consent by me, that you and CAA proceeded to negotiate with Barry Levinson, whom you also represented, is a prima facie conflict-of-interest and a breach of fiduciary duty,” Simon said to the agent. “If you were a realtor secretly representing both sides of a house sale, your license would be torn up. If you were a lawyer, you’d be disbarred.”
After a pause, the agent responded, “But I’m not a lawyer. I’m an agent.” Notes Simon, “Yes you are. Yes you fucking are.”
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