One of the nation’s most prominent playwrights, Tony Kushner, has fired his agency, CAA, in the wake of Writers Guild of America demands that members fire their non-signatory agencies. Although the guild has no jurisdiction over stage writing, Kushner, who won a Tony and a Pulitzer for Angels in America, is also a screenwriter, having penned Lincoln, Munich (co-written) and the HBO adaptation of Angels.
News of Kushner’s decision came in the form of an essay by Kushner, which his husband, journalist and author Mark Harris, published Sunday in a tweet. The essay captures the torn feelings many writers have publicly and privately expressed over the last several days and weeks: They love their individual agents, but view the agency system and business model as wrongful, even corrupt or criminal, and as a key cause of income stagnation for television writers below the very top levels.
The Association of Talent Agents views the matter quite differently, of course, and says that the key agency practices at the center of the dispute — packaging fees and affiliate production — benefit writers and have not been the cause of declining incomes, which the agents blame on shorter seasons.
On Friday, negotiations between the WGA and the ATA collapsed, and the WGA imposed a new “Code of Conduct” barring those practices. It’s a code that no major or mid-tier agency has signed and, since WGA rules prohibit members from being represented by non-signatory agencies, screen and television writers began firing their agents. Here is Kushner’s explanation, reprinted in full:
I just e-signed the WGA letter terminating my association with CAA, which has represented me since the early 1990s. I’m tremendously indebted to all the people at the agency who’ve given me guidance and support. Like many Guild members, I consider my agent to be a dear friend. We’ve been together for two decades, and I trust him without reservation. I always assumed that he and I would be a team until one of us stopped working, and I hope that soon we’ll be able to resume our professional affiliation. That will depend on the ATA finding a way to respond meaningfully to what the WGA is demanding. Our union’s code of conduct is rational, ethical, and it’s in accordance with state and federal laws governing fiduciary representation. It’s economically essential for writers for film and television to be represented wholeheartedly and unqualifiedly if we’re going to stop our wages stagnating and declining. The film and television industry is colossally profitable; writers are indispensable to it, and only an infinitesimal fraction of our number earn anything that resembles a fair share of the wealth we help create.
Agents didn’t invent this inequitable system, and many agents work hard to get top dollar for their established clients, and to try to ameliorate the chronic underpayment of some of the younger and lesser-known writers they represent. That’s great, but systems change when systematic efforts are made to change them. The agencies of the ATA have built a system the profitability of which relies on routinizing divided loyalties and concealment. To reject the principle of transparency in business transactions is to embrace the inevitability of economic malfeasance. If your job is to advocate for one side in a negotiation, it’s manifestly absurd to argue that you aren’t compromised by entering into side deals, secret or otherwise, with the opposing side.
Regarding people as exploitable assets is an option that’s always been available in business transactions, and obviously it’s an option that’s exercised more often than not. But what once was an ugly, shameful truth about the marketplace has been elevated, over the course of several recent decades of celebrating dehumanization, into commonplace, collective wisdom, an irresistible imperative. We reassure ourselves that we can strip others of the respect and fairness to which all people are entitled without doing them serious damage; we reassure ourselves that we can replace our own faculties of human connection with marketplace duplicities and double-dealings without damaging our own humanity. We become blind to ourselves, to the consequences of our behavior, to what we know to be true.
We all know what it should mean to be a writer’s or a director’s or an actor’s agent. It’s an arrangement based on mutual benefit. If the same mutuality characterized the relationship between employers and employees, the wealth that relationship generates wouldn’t be divisible into profits and wages, and our society and our country wouldn’t be imperiled by increasingly grotesque economic disparity and injustice. The WGA is insisting that we don’t identify with, seek to emulate or be represented by profiteers. If our agents aren’t with us on this, how can we expect them to help us when we contend with profiteers to get what’s rightfully ours?
For more on this subject, visit THR‘s labor page.