Why Some Writers Won’t Need to Fire Their Agents If a Deal Isn't Reached

Getty/WGAW/WGAE

The WGA is giving an exemption in the standoff to foreign workers who are sponsored by their talent agencies in the U.S.

Even as most Writers Guild members brace to fire their agents as early as April 13, some won’t have to.

The Hollywood Reporter has learned that foreign writers who are in the U.S. on visas sponsored by talent agencies have been given special dispensation by the union and can keep their agents even if the agency involved does not sign the guild’s new Code of Conduct. There are probably several hundred writers who fall under this category.

Michael Bhim, whose credits include CW drama All American, is one writer who was working in the U.S. from the U.K. on such a visa. WGA West president David Goodman says, “Upon consulting immigration attorneys, it became clear there are no viable alternatives that would protect the writers’ immigration status if they leave their sponsors.” 

The situation arises from a quirk in the law regarding the so-called O-1B visa, which the U.S. reserves for individuals with “extraordinary achievement” in the motion picture or television industry and which allows the visa holder to work in the States for up to three years, or longer with extensions.

While most work visas must be sponsored by an employer, an O-1B can be sponsored by a talent agency, in a nod to the gig-based nature of much entertainment work. But firing one’s agent could result in loss of sponsorship — and forfeiture of the visa.

“International writers who hold visas sponsored by talent agencies are in danger of losing their jobs as well as their right to stay in the U.S. if they leave their agency,” Goodman notes. “This puts them in a uniquely vulnerable position should the WGA implement a Code of Conduct and their agencies are no longer franchised.”

One of the major agencies sponsors 100 entertainment workers per year, of whom about half are writers, a source tells THR. That suggests there may be several hundred writers in the same boat as Bhim. The WGA did not respond to a request for data. State Department figures show about 17,000 O-1 visas issued in fiscal year 2018, but that number includes O-1A visas, which relate to non-entertainment fields, as well as non-Hollywood O-1Bs.

The 2018 figures are virtually unchanged from 2017, after years of increase. In today’s politically charged climate on immigration, that’s no coincidence. Immigration attorney Maria Mejia-Opaciuch wrote recently, “Approval of O-1 petitions has become far more difficult under the Trump administration.”

This story also appears in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.