Why Writers Should Compromise With Agencies to Remake Hollywood (Guest Column)

David A Goodman Christopher Barrett Inset - Getty - H 2019
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images; Courtesy of Subject

Because it's in their self-interest, the agencies would have likely offered a more meaningful portion of package fees and included guild members as equity owners on affiliated productions.

For 34 years I owned Metropolitan Talent Agency, where I employed as many as 25 agents and represented up to 300 clients, including about 100 writers at our peak. We staffed a lot of series and sold a lot of scripts. We packaged movies and TV shows. Agents dream of getting their clients a job. They hunger for it. We were proud to help our clients find work and maximize their incomes, and we saw our roles as complementary to that of the guilds.

Lately, though, I have been watching the Writers Guild of America snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. An opportunity to make their membership part of the television equity stream as well as place meaningful controls over agency packages and affiliate production was achievable. Instead, the guild set off on a misguided attempt to prohibit those practices altogether through a new “Code of Conduct” and negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents collapsed. But packages and production are not going away, and now the WGA has simply lost influence over them.

The guild has called what is effectively a strike against the ATA and ordered its membership to fire their representatives. Agents have been vilified. The well has been poisoned. Paradoxically, while agents have been described as useless, a "cartel" bordering on illegality, WGA members have been communicating that they hope to reconnect once the new code has been accepted. So, the writers want to continue paying for what they don’t value?

As for the agents, getting signed contracts with clients has reached an impossibly low return rate, the cost of engaging clients has gone up, with side letters and manager comments, and the services that clients expect have increased. Getting paid by a client has frequently become even more arduous and the need to find a reliable payor has increased. Packages represent an important part of agency income and affiliated content companies are fully integrated into the system, impossible and unwise to unwind.

But imagine if the guild had chosen a different route. The WGA could have treated this contract negotiation as an opportunity rather than a scorched earth campaign. Instead of an impasse, the guild and agencies could have charted a course that became strategic and precedential for future negotiations.

The agencies that comprise the ATA have sought to keep package fees and affiliated production. On these matters rest the possibilities for a deal. Because it’s in their self-interest, the agencies would have likely offered a meaningful portion of package fees — one percent was their first offer and not meant to be their last. Perhaps a backend threshold could be reached and then a serious percentage of the returns could be shared. The agencies want labor peace, particularly with their partner/clients. And peace brings a serious share.

Had the WGA been a negotiating partner instead of a combatant, the agencies would have likely included guild members as equity owners on affiliated productions. In fact, they already have been doing this. Historically, the deals that talent has achieved with agency affiliated companies have been better than at the studios. Endeavor Content made a deal with a showrunner — no less than the WGA East’s president Beau Willimon, in fact — for him to own 51 percent of his series.

The ATA member agencies would have seen this as an opportunity to codify packages and their aligned content companies as legitimate. In such a negotiation with the ATA the agents would have been at a disadvantage — who wants to beat up your own clients? — and the result would be higher minimum salaries, with strong back end definitions and serious transparency. Issues regarding exclusivity and minimum orders that have decimated writers’ income could have been addressed and fixed. What about a series minimum for streaming content of 15 episodes per season to get exclusivity? Residuals, which in the streaming era have and will recede, could have been shored up and improved. The goal of writers actually getting ownership and interest in deals as a minimum could have been achieved with the ATA. Such deals could then be utilized as precedent to extract better terms from Apple, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

After the streaming players, the WGA would have turned to the AMPTP next year. Armed with new and higher minimums from the ATA content companies and powerful streamers, the guild would have been at a historic advantage with its main adversary, the studios. The WGA achievement might have invigorated the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, which are likely to negotiate with the AMPTP several months before the WGA does.

Is it too late? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Positions have been taken that only allow failure but a reasoned course, including the hand of friendship if offered, will likely result in meaningful discussions that will conclude in a precedent setting deal that will galvanize the labor movement and improve writers’ lives dramatically for the better.

It’s a golden opportunity that doesn’t have to be missed.

Christopher Barrett is the former owner and CEO of Metropolitan Talent Agency.

For more on this subject, visit THR‘s labor page.