Writers Guild Stumbles as It Attempts to Enlist Managers in Fight Against Agents

Courtesy of WGA West

A meeting with hundreds of managers turns into "an abject f—king disaster" as questions fly about the WGA’s goals and tactics.

The Writers Guild of America met Thursday morning with upwards of a hundred talent managers to seek their support in the guild’s battle against talent agents, but the meeting went badly for the WGA, according to multiple attendees. The guild was unable or unwilling to answer basic questions of strategy or goals or to reassure the managers that writers would benefit from the guild’s attempt to wrest power from the agencies.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with four managers who attended the roughly two-hour gathering at the Hollywood W Hotel. They all painted a similar picture while speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"The WGA was unprepared for the questions it received," said one, "which was a surprise to me."

"It was an abject fucking disaster," said another. "The point was to get managers on their side, [but they achieved] the exact opposite. I wouldn’t trust [a particular WGA executive] to organize a barbecue, let alone this negotiation."

"It was a very cogent presentation at first and then the questions started flying," said a third, "and they didn’t have good answers."

"It was awful," said a fourth manager. "They really don’t know what the fuck they’re doing."

The WGA did not respond to a request for comment.

The meeting was standing room only, and sources estimated the attendance at 100 to 200, including representatives of every top management firm, according to one of the attendees.

The guild has said it intends to impose new agency rules on April 7, a day after the existing agreement with the Association of Talent Agents expires. Most agencies are unlikely to sign on to the new rules, but WGA membership rules prohibit writers from being represented by unsigned agents.

This raises the possibility that writers will be unrepresented during television staffing season, the spring period in which broadcast series hire writers to staff their writing rooms. At the meeting, the guild asked managers, working with entertainment lawyers, to bridge the gap and procure employment for their clients. "They fucking said this," said one of the managers, shocked because state law prohibits managers from procuring employment.

When this was pointed out, the guild executive’s response was that the managers should get agency licenses themselves. "So you can strike against us, too?" wondered one manager.

"Why should we help you if you’re just going to stab us in the back?" said another.

Indeed, several managers worried that if the WGA were able to seize power from the agencies, the managers would be their next target. But one attendee said that a much more concerning topic was how writers would fare without agents, especially during staffing season. The guild said it would post job openings on its website, a prospect that drew derision from several managers.

At the crux of the dispute between the guild and the agencies is the proposed new rules, which would prohibit agencies from packaging films and television series — thereby denying agencies what are sometimes extremely lucrative fees — and which would also prohibit affiliated production entities, which the three biggest agencies have established in recent years.

Moreover, the rules would be unilaterally imposed by the guild and could be changed at any time on 60 days’ notice, which the agencies see as a potentially enormous loss of control. The WGA met with entertainment lawyers Friday and is set to meet again with managers on Tuesday morning.

Are other guilds supporting the WGA’s efforts? "They’re cheering us on from the sidelines," was the guild’s response, according to an attendee at the Thursday meeting. What percentage of members was needed to authorize imposing the new rules, referred to as a Code of Conduct? The guild couldn’t or wouldn’t answer that, said two of the managers.

If studios stop paying packaging fees, how did the guild know that this money would come back to writers (and be enough to offset the 10 percent commissions that writer would have to pay in the absence of packaging fees)? The guild simply expressed "hope" that this would happen, said several of the managers, who spoke instead of a windfall that studios would likely retain or use to finance other production costs.

"The car is broken," said a guild executive according to one of the managers. "We don’t know what’s going to happen when we fix it."

"It's a dangerous road that they’re going down," said another.