Writers Guild West President David Goodman on Fight With Agencies: "Both Sides Want a Deal" (Q&A)

David A. Goodman - Getty - H 2019
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"The current circumstances will at some point end," says the guild leader on the eve of the union's election.

The Writers Guild of America West's officer and board elections have been a hard-fought referendum on the guild’s current campaign against major talent agency business practices, particularly packaging fees and affiliate production.

The balloting ends Monday, and as the battle draws to a close, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with incumbent WGAW president David Goodman (and, separately, with challenger Phyllis Nagy) for a candid Q&A. (This interview with Goodman has been edited for length and clarity.)

What does it mean if you get re-elected but there’s a strong tide for Phyllis Nagy — does that change the direction at all?

The vote count, and who gets elected to the board and to the officers, will absolutely influence our strategy one way or the other, no question. If it’s a strong majority that obviously tells us something; if it’s not, that also tells us something. We’ll know in five days, and then at that point we’re going to have to look at those votes and we won’t ignore them. We won’t ignore what those votes say.

Give us a little bit of transparency into how the president and board work with staff on shaping strategy on something like the agency issue.

The issue about packaging started with writers. That was writers in the boardroom, saying that this was an issue we had to look at. That to me is something that gets lost in this conversation where I think people do feel perhaps staff has an outsized influence — no. This fight started with, I remember very specifically, board member Chip Johannessen talking about this issue and talking about writers that he talked to and it became — this was about five years ago, Chip saying we’ve got to look at this, because this issue is hurting us.

That’s where it started: It started with writers. It didn’t start with some concoction or plan from staff. It started with writers who understand the business and understand — you know, in this agency campaign I think that there have been moments where we’ve been talked down to by our counterparts across the table. As if we don’t understand the business. And writers who work in television or movies understand the business as well as anybody. And it was the really sort of very brilliant writers who said, "This issue is hurting us." And so that’s where it started. And then then the research starts and staff obviously carries out that the research but then it becomes a conversation: what do we want to do about it.

The agency campaign was the reason I ran for president the first time, because I felt like we needed to take this on and if writers weren’t willing to take it on it wouldn’t get done. Staff doesn’t tell us what to do, it’s the other way around. [Executive director David Young] obviously is an amazing strategist and an amazing negotiator, but he is doing what our leadership wants him to do. And we obviously take his advice on the nuts and bolts of negotiating and how it works, certainly when we’re dealing with the [studio alliance] AMPTP and how we negotiate with them.

In this campaign, because writers have had so much more contact with agents, we understand agents in a way that staff doesn’t, and staff has taken our orders on how we deal with this and how we proceed.

David is obviously a brilliant guy at his job. I work very closely with him. We don’t always agree, and the staff does what the board wants it to do. It’s never the other way around.

How much did the infusions of private equity money into talent agencies which started around 2010 trigger concern in the guild about agency divergence from focus?

It was all of a piece. I don’t think we looked at it separately. The idea that there’s been this downward pressure on writer overscale income and connecting it to the diversification of the agency’s businesses was not something that necessarily was obvious to us at all at the time. It took time to figure that out, mostly because so much of the agency financials are closed to us.

Does the guild have research that shows causality, that the packaging model actually causes the suppression of writer incomes?

We’ve certainly done the work to understand that agency’s interests aren’t aligned with our interests. Again, because so much is closed to us, whether or not there’s actual data, the issue is that agents are not acting as proper fiduciaries and they’re conflicted in these practices and their incomes are going up while ours are going down. That’s the important piece.

Did the formation of Endeavor Content in November 2017 lead to the notice of termination in April 2018?

No, because we signed those companies as signatories. It was a slow examination of the trends of the business and how the companies had consolidated. And though packaging has been around for 40 years, it’s only in the last 15 that it’s dominated the television business in such a way that it’s been hurting writers across the board. It was a all of a piece. So I wouldn’t say the formation of Endeavor Content was in any way the trigger.

So then what led to April of last year?

We had to give them a year’s notice; that was in the old contract. We wanted to make sure that whatever negotiations were going to go on with ATA and the agencies that they would not be occurring during a year where we were in our MBA [Minimum Basic Agreement] negotiations [with the AMPTP]. We felt that the agencies were growing, we knew about the possibility of an Endeavor IPO, and we knew that we had to try to do something to address these issues soon. Once WME becomes a private company, the conflict of interest is baked into their business and if we haven’t done something … because the idea that they could be equally responsible to shareholders and clients is ludicrous. It’s just not possible. They have to put their shareholders first. And that means that services to clients have to take a backseat and that’s just an untenable conflict of interest, and so it was all those things that led to deciding that we would give a years notice last year, and hopefully get this thing resolved.

Even a private company wants to make profit, of course, and so a private company is monetizing its relationships with its writers and other talent. But is it that a public company is just so much more fiercely tied to quarterlies that makes it untenable?

A public company has to be responsible to shareholders first, period. And they can’t be a proper fiduciary if their priority is to shareholders. Whereas when they’re privately held, they have some obligation to investors, and that’s definitely a corrupting influence as well, but I think that that’s the needle they’re trying to tread. But certainly that’s a big difference between a private and public company.

Let’s talk about the lawsuits filed by the guild against the major agencies.

The whole point of the lawsuits was to provide leverage so the agencies get serious about this and talk to us and start to make a deal. We’re pursuing the lawsuit seriously, but they’re also leverage to get the agencies to come to the table. The lawsuits speak to pressure to get the agencies to recognize that they’re engaged in conflicts of interest is that they have to fix, that the Writers Guild and the members of the Writers Guild want them to fix. Both sides in this election agree that there are abuses in packaging that need to be addressed and that affiliate production is something we can’t accept. And so, whatever the issues are about this election, however the vote gets decided, the membership is almost in complete agreement that there’s a problem here that the agencies need to address.

How long can writers successfully go without agents?

The whole purpose is to get us back with our agents. The whole purpose is to get agencies to sign on to our new franchise agreements and we’ll negotiate with any agency that wants to. I think that writers are currently, some of them, are having a tough time. Many of our feature writers are struggling without the help of their agents and they want their agents back. And then there are a lot of other writers who’ve gone for a good chunk of their career without agents. It’s writer to writer. The goal of this was not to say that writers don’t need agents or that writers could last forever without agents. That’s never been the goal.

The goal has been to make sure that agents are acting in the best interest of writers. These agencies have been engaged in corporate practices that are not in the best interests of writers. So to answer your question, how long can writers go without agents: I’m listening to our members and our members are still — but we’ll know more Monday — still very much completely in favor of what we’re doing in a large majority. They don’t like it, it’s disruptive not to have access for some of them to their agents, they want to be back with agents or want to be able to have an agent who’s in their interest. So right now, they’re with the guild but to assume that that could last forever would be foolish on my part.

Are there particular sectors of writers who have found it particularly difficult?

Many of our feature writers are suffering the most and that speaks to one of the many differences between being a feature writer and a TV writer. If you’re strictly a feature writer, you’re probably in touch with your agent much more often, not necessarily just negotiating a current deal but you’re also always thinking about the next three jobs, trying to make sure that you’re getting out there and getting information and preparing pitches and getting meetings to sow the ground for work. The writer agent relationship there is much more important.

Because in television, while agents are important to writers, you’re getting jobs in television can really also rely more on other writers who you know, who you’ve worked with or who you just know who can find you connections. And then once you get a job on a television show, you’re working there for six months, so that’s six months where you’re probably not talking to your agent as much.

Having said that, writers in both areas can have managers and other kinds of representation or be with one of our franchise agency. So, there are plenty of options for writers right now but the ones that I’m hearing the most from that are hurt by this are the feature writers and we’re doing our best to create help for them. But, nothing as I said would completely be able to replace agents, which is why we want to try and find a resolution to this.

Why doesn’t writer-to-writer networking work as well for feature writers as it does for TV writers?

Because writers generally don’t hire other writers in features. You’re hired by executives, producers and studios. Whereas in television, I’ve helped a bunch of writers get meetings this year with executives, with the writers, the showrunner. You network that way, saying, "Pass this script along," or "I’ve worked with this person." Writers are among the people who hire people in television, especially on staff. If a writer who I work with recommends another writer to me, that’s meaningful.

That can help a little bit on the feature side in terms of recommending to executives and producers. Michele Mulroney has done an amazing job with other feature writers organizing these feature mixers at the guild where executives get to meet writers and I gather they’re going very well we’re doing a bunch of them so that’s like, that’s like an example of where the guild is trying to step in and help but it doesn’t completely fix it.

And I think for the middle class feature writer, you’ve got to really be hustling, a lot of your time, hustling for work because it’s so competitive out there and because you don’t know which jobs are going to come through and things can take a long time. Whereas, in television work on the staffing side, you know if you’re up for a job on a staff, you know pretty fast whether you got the job, because that show’s got to go in production. Certainly network staffing season happens over a two-month period, and if you haven’t gotten the job by mid-June, you’re probably not getting one for network. With cable, it’s show to show and you know, "Oh, this show got picked up," "Oh, I’m up for this show," "Oh, they’re fully staffed, time to move on." So it’s a different kind of thing, whereas feature stuff can take forever.

Then, but I guess it’s probably similar, but I think the acceleration of technology in the space to be driving in a lot of ways and that’s what so sort of scary and the way, you know, trying to stay out of it knowing what to say.

If there’s one thing you would say to the members, what would it be?

The members know where I stand on everything, the members know that that I’m available to them and the that I and the leadership are completely available to them and that’s why we’re here and that we’re listening to them. And we’re going to continue to listen to them and that as I said I feel that there’s strong support for the goals and the strategy that we’re pursuing, but if I’m wrong about that I’ll know on Sept. 16, and whatever the members want, we’re listening to it. I am a writer, I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a 30-year career and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the support of the guild during periods where I had trouble getting work, and I recognize the importance of the union for the members and if I’m reelected I’m going to be there for them the way the guild’s been there for me.

And what would you say to the agencies?

The agencies know that we want a deal. The agencies know that we want them to negotiate with us seriously but we want them to address these issues that we’ve raised. We want them to admit that there have been abuses of packaging; that packaging fees are not are not in general in the best interest of writers, they’re in the best interest of agencies; that agencies owning production companies is not in the best interest in the long term of writers; and that transparency of how agencies make their money off of representing writers is something they need to share with writers and that they need to share with the guild to help the guild enforce the MBA.

I think the agencies have come to realize that our members, by and large, recognize that the issues the guild has raised are important to them. That’s where this started, with members raising these issues. So, we want writers to have their agents back. And what I’d say to the agencies is what I’ve been saying, which is, "Come on, get serious, recognize that we’ve raised important issues and address them as you should."

In your negotiations next year, will you be seeking to extract from the studios the money that would have been paid as packaging fees on new shows?

That is significant money certainly if that is the case. But what gets lost in this whole conversation that you and I are having and that I’m having in the guild and having with the agencies is that in those conversations we’re talking only about the money that the agencies get for and we’re ignoring the fact that are the companies we work for made $50 billion in profit every year. The companies are doing just fine. This extra money from packaging wouldn’t even be a blip on their profit sheet.

And so that’s at the core of this issue: our agencies are fighting for money for themselves and are forgetting about all those profits that are driven by the content that we create And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get our agencies back to that idea instead of fighting for this money for yourselves. Fight for the money for us that then gets you paid. There’s all this money on the table already that that the companies don’t give us, because our agencies are have figured out a way to eliminate risk and get all this packaging money and then expand their businesses, and they’re not focused on the bigger picture which is that there’s a lot of money in there that’s driven by writers creating product that couldn’t be even more important these days.

That’s what we’re trying to fix. The MBA negotiation is always a tough fight, but the companies have plenty of money, but when we’re in the negotiation over the MBA, we’re fighting for less than one percent of their profit. It’s such a minuscule amount that we’re fighting for. And what we want in the agency campaign is to get the agencies back to fighting with us for our money, and let the guild fight for minimums and pension health and things they’re supposed to.

What do you think of the SAG-AFTRA separate deal with Netflix?

I don’t know the specifics of the SAG-AFTRA deal to comment on it. But obviously, in this world of streaming, where big companies are all launching their streaming services, there are there are advantages for us in that some of these companies are not in the AMPTP room, and these are specifically the companies that the large corporations are competing with their streaming services. That that does create some leverage for us.

It really comes down to this, which is, I think, something that we have to remind our members of every year, which is the companies rely on the product written by writers and so whatever business model the companies are pursuing, it’s always driven by product created by writers. So as these companies launch their streaming services, the way they need to get subscribers is not just the libraries, it’s with new product. So the leverage that we have is the same leverage we always have, which is that the companies need us. They really wish they didn’t, but they do. And that’s the leverage we have going into any negotiation, but that leverage is only as good as the solidarity of the membership.

There’s no question there’s vulnerability, because they need us. How much they can ride out a conflict with us is a whole other thing. And that’s also based on how well we’ve done our job, talking to the members, understanding what the members’ priorities are and holding them together.

But that’s all hypothetical. And none of that’s been determined yet and it’s possible that we get into negotiation with the companies and we get what we need. That’s always a possibility. And it’s especially a strong possibility this year if we have some success with this agency campaign because we’ve taken on a very big issue. We’ve shown an enormous amount of strength. And although I would never expect the companies to roll over on anything, I do think they recognize the strength of our union, and that affects them in negotiation.

The agencies are saying they want to be allies with the Writers Guild in the negotiations with the AMPTP. Do you take them at their word?

I only have the evidence of past negotiations where they have not been our allies. I don’t think they’ve been our enemies, they just haven’t been helpful. And they have also as a group tended to characterize any acts as a guild as a mistake and as being unwise. They don’t help us with our members by characterizing our actions with any respect or help. That may change. And that’s what we want to change, we want the relationship to change. But previously they have not been of help, they haven’t been at all.

Do you think that the guild will need to strike this time?

I have no idea. That is a function of a lot of things. We have to figure out what are the issues that have to be fought for and will they require that kind of … the decision about whether we need a conflict negotiation or not happens over the next six to eight months, as we talk to the members, decide what are the issues that we have to take on right now, and whether they require a conflict. And those decisions have not been made yet.

At the end of the day there really are only three tools, aren’t there? One is clear enough communication and calculation on both sides that you come to agreement. The second is a strike authorization vote, and then the third is an actual strike.

The second two are the same, because the only value a strike authorization vote has is if the companies think you’ll go on strike. You can’t load that gun unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. You can’t call for a strike authorization vote unless your leadership and your membership are ready to go on strike. I’m not in any way saying we have to go on strike next year — let’s be clear about that. Unfortunately, we have limited tools in a large business where we’re controlled by large companies that negotiate together. The AMPTP is a very effective organization, and taking them on as we do every three years is hard. But the lever that we have is that they need us.

Their power to some degree is that many of us feel lucky that we get to do this for a living. And so that’s the power struggle: they need us while many of us who grew up in working class households feel like, what a gift that I get to do this for a living, and maybe feel a little guilty about it. So we don’t always act powerful because we may be worried we won’t get to do this.

Finally, what haven’t I asked you?

The current circumstances will at some point end. I would say this: Both sides want a deal. I know that. I’m not making that up. The agencies all want a deal. They want to end this. And the guild wants to end this. So that means that as dug in as both sides seem, it’s not intractable. Both sides recognize there will be a moment where we come together and figure this out.

The important thing to understand is that we haven’t really been having honest conversations, and that once they open up and start really getting into it with us in an honest way, we understand that we’re not going to get everything we want. But until we start having a real negotiation, neither side is going to be able to figure out what that compromise position is.

What do you make of the packaging fee sharing proposal that the agencies made and their fear that possible pattern bargaining demands from the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA constrain the amount of revenue sharing the agencies can offer?

Well, this isn’t pattern bargaining. Packaging fees are mostly driven by the writers. The idea that they have to give SAG-AFTRA and the DGA exactly what they give us is just not true; it’s not the same thing at all. That’s just a cover for them for their terrible offer, but the biggest problem with that initial offer was they’re making this offer of two percent, but they won’t tell us what it’s of.

We don’t know how much money they make, how could they even consider that a serious offer when they’re not going to even say, "We’ll tell you exactly how much that is." All it was was a PR attempt to split the union, and it didn’t work because the members are too smart. They saw it for what it was. It wasn’t a serious effort, it wasn’t a serious attempt. And so we removed revenue sharing from the table because it was very clear that that wasn’t going to solve our problems or align our interests.