Talent Agents, Writers Guild at Odds as Contract Expiration Nears

Courtesy of WGA West

After an allegedly pro forma meeting, talent agents “have serious doubts about the sincerity” of the WGA.

With just two months to go before a key contract between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents terminates, the two organizations are nowhere near resolving fundamental differences over how agencies function and get paid in a rapidly evolving entertainment industry. The two organizations finally met on Tuesday, 10 months after the WGA sent a notice starting a 12-month countdown to termination, but according to the ATA, the meeting was not productive.

“The agencies arrived ready to listen to WGA’s explanations of their proposals as were requested to do,” said the ATA in a letter to its members. “However, the executive director of the WGA and his staff merely read their proposals aloud and refused to provide any of the promised explanations or otherwise elaborate on their demands. Given WGA leadership’s approach to this meeting, ATA member agencies have serious doubts about the sincerity of WGA leadership’s desire for a negotiated solution.”

The WGA is seeking massive changes to the way talent agencies do business, demanding that the firms stop collecting packaging fees (a decades-old practice), cease their involvement in production-type activities (much of which is more recent) and not collect commissions on scale compensation. (Unlike actors, who at the low end are paid union scale plus 10 percent, television staff writers are typically paid scale without an extra 10 percent.)

“We … emphatically disagree with what WGA leadership is telling their membership about the practices of packaging, production and commission of scale — because WGA’s proposals are simply not in the best interest of writers,” added the ATA, which said it has proposed a series of further meetings with the guild.

The WGA, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has set member meetings for Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday. “We want to get face-to-face with every member in the Guild — starting now,” said the WGA in a Jan. 31 email, signaling a tough approach.

Television packaging fees have been a key source of income for top agencies for decades — much more so than the traditional ten percent commission — and producer-like activities such as project finance, although generally much newer, are seen by several of the top agencies as key to surviving and thriving in a world of mega media conglomerates. The WGA, in contrast, views those activities, and even packaging fees, as a conflict of interest.

Those and other proposed changes to the agreement, also known as the franchise agreement or Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement of 1976 (AMBA), were contained in a letter the WGA West and East sent to the ATA on April 6 last year. That letter began a one-year countdown to termination. At least one of the other proposed changes, that scale compensation not be commissionable, is also problematic for agencies, since it could mean that agents would see no commission when negotiating staff writer deals for TV shows that are not packaged.