Writers Guild, Talent Agent Battle Heats Up as WGA Sends Out New Agency Code of Conduct

Courtesy of WGA West

Read the new code at links below; meanwhile, WME sets writer meetings for next week.

The war between the Writers Guild of America and the talent agencies escalated Thursday evening with an email from the WGA to all talent agencies providing them with a copy of the WGA’s proposed code of conduct and a letter of adherence to sign if they desired. Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter has learned that WME — one of the big four agencies targeted by the WGA — has scheduled a series of open house meetings with writer clients next week to address questions about the changing business climate in entertainment. Chief among writers’ questions is likely to be, “How do I choose between my agency and my guild?”

That question is only going to get more fraught come April 7, the day after the current WGA-ATA agreement expires. That’s the day the union said in its email that it “intends to implement” the new Code — a set of regulations that would prohibit such practices as packaging and production, financing or distribution of movies, TV shows, streaming product and the like.

“No Agent shall have an ownership or other financial interest in, or shall be owned by or affiliated with, any entity or individual engaged in the production or distribution of motion pictures … [or] with, any business venture that would create an actual or apparent conflict of interest with Agent’s representation of a Writer,” says the Code, in language that would dismantle entities such as Endeavor Content, CAA’s WIIP and UTA’s planned venture into the content business.

Separate language that would block the decades-old, and highly lucrative, practice of packaging reads, “No Agent shall derive any revenue or other benefit from a Writer’s involvement in or employment on a motion picture project, other than a percentage commission based on the Writer’s compensation or fee. No Agent shall accept any money or thing of value from the employer of a Writer.”

(“Motion picture” is an umbrella term that encompasses any works written under a WGA labor agreement, such as movies, television episodes, streaming product, video games and the like.)

The WGA did drop an earlier position that would have prohibited charging commission on employment at union minimums. That removes an impediment for smaller agencies, whose clients may include television staff writers. Such writers are often paid scale, meaning that smaller agencies would have been in effect asked to work for free if they couldn’t commission such writers. (“Scale plus ten” is a custom for actors at the lower end, so that such actors can be commissioned without invading the minimum, but this practice doesn’t extend to writers.)

The guild is attempting to drive a wedge between the big four agencies — CAA, WME, UTA and ICM — and their smaller competitors, exploiting what is seen as inherent instability within the ATA. ICM has disavowed production-type activities, but all four, plus several of the next tier, actively engage in packaging.

Smaller agencies, which are believed to generally derive much less income from packaging and don’t generally engage in production-type activities, must now decide whether to hedge their bets by signing the letter of adherence to the Code of Conduct, found here (read them at the links), in order to be ready for April 7, but at the cost of undermining ATA negotiators, who may not even learn about defections until after the current agreement expires. No further talks are currently scheduled between the parties, and the situation is fluid.

Likewise, writers at the four WME sessions set for Monday-Wednesday at the agency’s Beverly Hills office may have hard questions for their agents — and perhaps vice versa. It’s believed that all WME writer clients have been invited to the open houses, and a meeting may be set for New York as well, according to a source, if there is sufficient demand.

What does a writer do come April 7? The WGA’s Working Rule 23 is simple: “No writer shall enter into a representation agreement whether oral or written, with any agent who has not entered into an agreement with the Guild covering minimum terms and conditions between agents and their writer clients.”

And, as Rule 1 typographically emphasizes, “A VIOLATION OF ANY WORKING RULE SHALL BE CONSIDERED GROUNDS FOR DISCIPLINARY ACTION.” When and whether the guild would take action is unknown. In general, unions have the power to fine, suspend and even expel members for violation of working rules.

There is one out: A writer can elect financial core status, making him or her a sort of shadow member of the guild who retains union benefits, pays slightly reduced dues and, critically, is beyond the reach of guild discipline. Writers could conceivably go fi-core en masse and escape the dilemma.

But this is unlikely to happen. Fi-core is viewed by many union members as tantamount to treason, and the concept is more often bandied about than acted upon. The WGA West’s latest federal report shows the guild with over 10,000 active members — and only 40 fi-core adherents.

Instead, as THR previously reported, WGA West president David Goodman said in a Feb. 13 speech to members (video, audio, text), “High-profile writers will be asked at a certain point to publicly state support for this campaign and their willingness to walk away from their agency as necessary” — a “certain point,” and a hard choice, that could come any day.