Kyle Killen: As Writers Fire Agents, Rank-and-File Are Most at Risk (Guest Column)
The 'Halo' showrunner shares the termination letter he sent to WME: "I'm worried that the executive story editor who just tweeted his or her firing letter and is now seeking their next gig at a mixer or on a job board might be the one taking the real risk."
Kyle Killen is currently showrunner of Halo at Showtime and previously created Lone Star at Fox, Awake at NBC and Mind Games at ABC, as well as having written the feature The Beaver. He was repped by WME for writing services from 2009 until he sent them the termination letter below on Saturday.
Hi Marc and the rest of you at WME,
The first thing I want you to know is that I’ve been to exactly one fancy Hollywood party in my life. Twenty minutes in, a woman spilled a drink on me, looked at me like it was my fault, and then told me that I was going to die from a spider bite. I said okay, asked if she was psychic, and she looked at me like I was the dumbest person she’d ever met and said, “No, I’m a witch.”
I tell you this so you will understand that I’m not exactly well connected in Hollywood. I write things down for a living and am otherwise almost entirely reliant on others to tell me what to do. Those with my best interests and the best interests of my fellow writers at heart have told me that I must fire you. Not that we “can’t work together while this is being sorted out,” but that I must sign a mandatory form letter or face penalties which they refuse to define beyond something like a fine and/or complete expulsion. The thing is, they have to threaten me because they want what’s best for me (which reminds me I have a pitch for a story about an abusive relationship when it’s cool for us to talk again).
You might be thinking, But Kyle, haven’t I always done right by you? Haven’t I helped overcome your cripplingly poor writing skills and made it possible for you to not only do the job you love, but to run your own shows?
You have. Which was a real mistake on your part. Because, honestly, I could probably coast for a while from the position you’ve helped put me in. I’m not saying I wouldn’t eventually fuck it all up, but I can probably do without you for a few minutes or months. Way to screw yourself by doing well for me. You fucking Mafia types are all the same.
I guess what I’m saying is that being forced to write this letter and taking this action carries relatively little risk for me. I’m guessing it probably carries relatively little risk for all those other showrunners who signed the letter of support. I didn’t sign because (A) who really cares what my name is or isn’t on and (B) it felt so odd that the names of people with very little to lose were being used to recruit people for whom the situation was almost exactly the opposite.
See, I’m worried that the executive story editor who just tweeted his or her firing letter and is now seeking their next gig at a mixer or on a job board might be the one taking the real risk. Having staffed five writers' rooms, I have to say, they might not think they rely on their agent, but I’m relying on their agent. There is a limit to what a team of people trying to build a staff can read, and if you think the impassioned calls and letters from agents about a writer I “won’t have heard of but is perfect for this show” make no difference, Marc, you racketeering scum, you are dead wrong.
If I were staffing a show today, I could certainly call other showrunners, writers, get opinions. But they are not professional advocates. They are busy individuals who may or may not have a lens on the totality of someone’s skills. They’re not reading submissions from unknown and low-level writers seeking the next diamond in the rough. They’re not making outgoing calls all day trying to put their people to work. They’re trying to keep their heads above water, just like me.
So look, I’ll shoot you straight, I’m worried that some of these people might not staff. I’m worried that people with boats are fighting people with yachts while telling young writers to fire the person who — if they’re like me — made them break down in tears in front of a Subway Sandwich Artist because unlike everyone else in my life up to that point who heard I wanted to be a writer, this (Mafia asshole) person called to say they believed in me and wanted to make me their business.
But listen, there’s a damn good reason we’re taking this (wildly unevenly distributed) risk. The reason is packaging. Packaging is fucking bad, Marc.
I know this because basketball players can’t be packaged and it doesn’t take a genius to see that professional basketball is exactly like the television business.
What we want is a universe in which agents make commission. Period. Despite being a writer instead of an economist I know that this is better for us because logic. I don’t worry for a second that this might be a slightly more nuanced ecosystem than we’re giving it credit for. I don’t worry that a business where agencies rely solely on commission might be a business that can support fewer agents who will need to carry more clients. I don’t worry that it might be a recipe for drowning out some of the very voices we’re trying to lift up by forcing all focus on a few names who can make it (10 percent) rain.
I don’t worry about this because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from decades of Nobel Prize winners, it’s that economics is absolutely straightforward and simple. You can completely understand it with short sentences that can be retweeted. This is also why Trump’s gut-based economic policies are bulletproof and why if you ever find yourself in a fight with your face, the first thing you should do is cut off your nose.
I don’t feel icky about any of this, and it doesn’t bother me in the least that I had to wait until we’d stopped negotiating and filed a lawsuit to discover that five of the people charged with negotiating to help us avoid that lawsuit were plaintiffs in said lawsuit.
I don’t feel worried because I know that despite affiliate production being something nearly as satanic as packaging I’m actually free to continue working with affiliate production companies, even though you haven’t done anything about the fact that they pump money right back into your evil company. This isn’t hypocritical, and again, it’s totally fair that people in a position to strike deals to sell shows can go on working with a bad actor while people just trying to staff up need to tell you that they’ll see you in hell.
Now listen, if we do manage to burn your business to the ground, I’m really hoping you’ll be cool about this, because I’ll probably need your help to make sure all that newly freed up packaging money doesn’t just stay at the studios, but instead makes it into my budget and does amazing things for all the people who just leapt off this cliff. You can do that for me, right? Studios are usually pretty straight shooters, yes?
Oh, speaking of, we’ve got this whole contract thing coming up with them [WGA/studio negotiations will likely be next spring], so I’m glad we’re not doing something that unevenly spreads risk and harm to our members while also unevenly distributing the spoils. I want to make sure we’re still completely In Solidarity when it comes time to hit a real picket line, and no one feels burned that their livelihood was held hostage in a dispute that could have been (read: currently is being) settled by the courts while we all kept working.
But to return to my point, you’re all fired because packaging. And before you say it, no, it’s not good enough to have you abide by the court decision while making it explicit that I have the ability to opt out of packaging all together without further harm to anyone’s career or finances. You can take that shit back to your Capo or whatever and tell them no dice. Until someone sends me a picture of $10,000 suits, yachts and most of Wilshire in flames this will not end. Unless it turns out that instead of an illegal and immoral kickback, the package is just something you need to cut us in on so we can put it to good use. Honestly, I’ve got a full time job worrying about the threat of deadly spider bites, so I’m happy to just be fighting for whatever they’re telling me to fight for without having to think about it.
Speaking of telling me what to do, just so there’s no confusion, here’s the version of this letter someone wrote for me. Clearly, I thought it was too short.
Dear (name of agency here) WME: Effective April 13, 2019, if your agency has not signed a franchise agreement with the Writers Guild of America, whether in the form of a Code of Conduct or a negotiated agreement, under WGA rules I can no longer be represented by you for my covered writing services. Once your agency is again in good standing with the Writers Guild, we can reestablish our relationship.
Sincerely, (your name here) Kyle Killen
Actually, I’ll put my name wherever the fuck I want.