Despite Writers Guild's String of Victories, Its Agency Fight Is Far From Over

David A. Goodman - Getty - H 2019
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ICM and Paradigm have been notable holdouts to the union's efforts to gather signatories on its code of conduct and franchise agreements.

When the Writers Guild of America launched its campaign two years ago to reshape the agency world, the goal struck some industry observers as out of reach. Forced to choose between their guild and the agents who put bread on their table, writers would eventually choose the latter and the union’s effort to end packaging fees and affiliate production wouldn't pay off.

Others guessed that the guild’s steely profile — “there are basic principles that are not subject to compromise,” WGA West president David A. Goodman said at a Feb. 13, 2019, membership meeting — was actually aimed at yielding significant compromises in negotiations that would presumably start soon.

Yet neither of those views proved true. Talks didn’t start for almost a year and, even then, they were scarcely negotiations at all, as the WGA said “no” to the Association of Talent Agents. Over 7,000 writers fired their agents en masse last April, and since then the guild has signed up eight medium and boutique agencies representing well over 900 writers, binding them to a new franchise agreement more to the union’s liking. And in the courtroom, the WGA and the three largest talent firms are locked in battle, with no knockout blows yet on either side.

But the guild’s string of victories has come at a cost. “Many of our feature writers are struggling without the help of their agents,” acknowledged Goodman in a September interview. And on the television side, sources say that packaging continues — but without writers. Rather than functioning as an essential element in a package, scribes find themselves applying for open assignments on new shows built around stars or underlying intellectual property. That’s a reset of the business, to be sure, but not one that advantages writers.

Meanwhile, there’s no indication that the largest agencies, WME, CAA and UTA, will sign with the WGA anytime soon, but the guild did manage to persuade Verve (May 16), Kaplan Stahler (July 22), Culture Creative Entertainment (July 24), Buchwald (July 25), Abrams (Nov. 13), Rothman Brecher (Nov. 18), Gersh (Jan. 17), APA (Jan. 21) and smaller shops to sign codes of conduct or franchise agreements.

That leaves ICM and Paradigm as the two significant agencies that are neither signatories nor litigants. Asked whether ICM was in talks with the WGA or expected to be, an agency rep said, “Not a peep. Don’t expect there will be. We have no interest in letting [WGA executive director] David Young run our business.” A Paradigm rep was at Sundance and did not respond to a request for comment.

A closer look at the last two years shows that the union did, in fact, compromise on what it was asking for. For one thing, WGA East president Beau Willimon and WGA negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser were both in business with Endeavor Content, an agency-affiliated production entity. For another, why had the WGA signed affiliate production entities as guild signatories in the first place if opposition to them was meant to be implacable? And why did the guild attempt to enlist managers as allies, given that managers quite often are engaged both in representation and production, precisely the dissonance the guild cited with affiliate production?

Then there’s the matter of the franchise agreements signed by the various agencies that did sign. The April 13, 2019, code of conduct, which flatly prohibited television packaging fees and affiliate production, garnered dozens of signatory agencies, but none with a significant literary business until Verve signed a substantially similar document. Next came Kaplan Stahler, but to secure their signature, the guild agreed that new packaging fee deals could continue to be made through a sunset date of June 28, 2020.

That date was maintained in the Buchwald agreement, but the Rothman Brecher agreement extended the sunset period to Jan. 22, 2021 and added a provision that if the WGA still didn’t have a deal with the four largest agencies by then, the sunset period would be further extended. The Rothman Brecher agreement also loosened the prohibition on affiliate production, creating an exception where the agency stake in the affiliate (or vice versa) was no more than 5 percent. The Gersh and APA agreements, in turn, are similar to the Rothman Brecher document, but extend the sunset to July 15, 2021.

Is Paradigm next? That may depend on whether writers start to flood Gersh and APA, which the guild said represented more than 500 and over 400 WGA members, respectively, prior to the April 2019 en masse firing. And ICM, although not a litigant, seems likely to wait until the legal process involving WME, CAA and UTA plays out — and trial is not scheduled for over a year from now.