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A leader in the Writers Guild of America’s battle against the major talent agencies — former WGA West president Chris Keyser, who serves as agency negotiating committee co-chair — is currently shopping a television project with WME’s affiliate production company, Endeavor Content. And two other large agencies, CAA and UTA, stand to receive packaging fees, even though the guild has blasted affiliate production and packaging fees as unacceptable conflicts of interest.
Since the imposition of a code of conduct barring those practices, WGA Working Rule 23 has effectively meant that members can’t be represented by most significant agencies, including the four largest, WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners. While Keyser’s relationship with WME’s content arm is not the same as representation, WGA Working Rule 2 requires that members “shall comply with these Rules in spirit as well as in letter.”
Keyser, who was previously a CAA client, says there is nothing amiss about being in business with an affiliate production company, despite having himself labeled such companies as “more pernicious” than packaging fees.
“The Guild made a strategic decision to approve Endeavor Content as a Guild signatory company,” Keyser said Thursday in a statement. “Neither before the agency campaign began (when CAA made my deal with Chernin Entertainment) nor during the course of the campaign, has the Guild ever discouraged or forbidden any member from working with a so-called ‘affiliated studio.’ Every additional studio that provides work for writers is a good thing. That includes Endeavor Content, [CAA’s affiliate] WiiP and [UTA’s affiliate] CCM.”
Keyser’s project, called The State of Affairs, is co-produced by Endeavor Content and Chernin Entertainment and was set up more than a year ago, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. It’s unclear whether that happened before or after April 6, 2018, the date that the WGA sent a one-year notice of termination to the Association of Talent Agents, causing a 43-year-old agreement between the parties to end April 6 of this year and plunging the industry into uncertainty.
Indeed, the formation of Endeavor Content in October 2017 was apparently one of the sparks that led the WGA to send its termination letter and begin a campaign that is roiling the industry. But that same formation looks to have been an opportunity for Keyser.
In the last six weeks of its war on the disputed practices, the WGA has forced over 7,000 of its members to fire their agents, the majority of whom were represented by the four largest agencies, and has sued those four agencies over packaging fees. “There are basic principles that are not subject to compromise,” WGA West president David Goodman said at a Feb. 13 membership meeting.
Keyser’s statement Thursday offers no explanation as to why the project is subject to CAA and UTA packaging fees. It continues at length with its defense of affiliate production companies: “This [existence of affiliate production entities] is in no way antithetical to the goals of the agency campaign, which is entirely focused on eliminating the conflicted practices of the agencies themselves. In the case of WME, CAA and UTA that means disentangling them from their studios, but not eliminating the studios or decreasing their business. Remember, in 1962, MCA, the agency, went away, but Universal Studios remained.” That last is a reference to an agency/studio breakup mandated by the Justice Dept. during an era when antitrust laws had more bite than they do today.
“So, even if I could have anticipated this question, back when I made my deal, it would have raised no legal or ethical issues,” concludes Keyser’s statement. “No one is being asked or expected as some sort of gesture — to walk away from work at an affiliated studio. Our sole obligation in this struggle is to abide by [Working Rule] 23 and fire our agencies until they resolve their conflicted practices. That we have all done as a united Guild.”
In making the distinctions he does, Keyser appears to be following in the footsteps of another leader, WGA East president Beau Willimon, who had his project The First produced by Endeavor Content also. (The show ran on Hulu for one season.) His representatives have previously declined to comment on the matter.
Indeed, as Keyser indicates, the WGA itself allowed CAA’s WiiP production unit and subsidiaries of Endeavor Content to become signatories to the guild’s collective bargaining agreement, making it possible for WGA members to do business with the companies whose very existence as agency affiliates is an affront to the WGA. But the guild sees no contradiction in this stance.
“It’s quite simple,” a WGA spokesman told THR in April. “We always want more producers, more competition for writers’ services, and more jobs for writers. We want Endeavor Content to be in business, we just want it to spin off its agency and eliminate the inherent conflicts of interest that now exist in its business practices.”
Endeavor Content and WME are both subsidiaries of Endeavor, which announced May 23 that it plans to go public, a move the WGA had previously blasted as “leverage[ing] [writers] into assets for investors.”
Lesley Goldberg contributed reporting.
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