Agency Group Pushes Back on Verve Deal With Writers Guild

Writers Guild WGA ATA Agents - H - 2019

The Association of Talent Agents moved Wednesday to counter a recent victory by the Writers Guild of America in the guild’s ongoing battle against major talent agencies and the ATA. The group released a memo by ATA attorneys that dismisses a revised version of the guild’s code of conduct for talent agents as harmful and unfair.

The agreement that the 30-agent Verve Talent & Literary Agency signed last Thursday with the WGA “continues to include a number of concerning provisions, separate and apart from packaging and affiliates,” according to the ATA attorneys’ analysis. The analysis echoes the ATA’s comments on an earlier version of the code, which the WGA unilaterally imposed April 13, even though the new code makes a number of small changes in favor of the agency.

The thrust of the guild’s battle continues to be a prohibition against packaging fees and affiliate production, matters that are of greater concern to large agencies like WME, CAA, UTA and ICM than to Verve, which does not engage in affiliate production and is less involved in packaging than the four largest agencies, whom the WGA has sued over the matter. Those practices are prohibited by the WGA’s code.

But the ATA wants to maintain solidarity within its ranks and avoid having its agencies follow the move of non-ATA member Verve. Hence the memo, which was sent Wednesday to ATA members and released to the media.

“Many of you have questions regarding the modified WGA Code signed by Verve last week, with particular interest in how the terms of this modified Code stand to impact your agency and your writer clients,” said ATA executive director Karen Stuart in an email to member agencies. “The WGA is trying to position this modified Code as a ‘negotiated’ agreement, when it is in fact the same unilateral mandate that gives the Guild authority to control your agency’s business. This includes limiting your clients’ creative and economic options and requiring agencies to provide clients’ confidential information, among other significant restrictions. The Code is unquestionably not in the best interests of agencies or the writers they represent.”

But the WGA fired back.

“There are a number of important changes in our agreement with Verve that differ from the Code of Conduct, all of which are available for accurate review on the WGA website,” said the guild in a statement. “Two of the most important to all agencies are the following: (1) The contract is in fact a mutual agreement, not a unilateral code. Just like the MBA it has an expiration date and allows either party, if they desire, to reopen and renegotiate the agreement. Somehow the ATA and their attorney miss this change. (2) The agreement also makes significant changes to the conflict of interest provisions, allowing franchised agents to represent both [production overall deals] and [intellectual property], as long as those clients are not signatory to the MBA. This change was viewed by the parties as mutually beneficial.”

According to the analysis by Latham & Watkins attorney Jessica Stebbins Bina, the version of the code signed by Verve still contains restrictions which harm writers’ economic and privacy interests, as well as two “Guild Power Grabs” and several unfair arbitration requirements. The highlighted provisions are mostly items which also appear in the previously promulgated version of the code, which has been signed by about 70 agencies, none of them other than Verve with major writer clients and only one a member of the ATA, a small shop called Pantheon. Verve did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In particular, none of the large or mid-tier agencies have signed the code, and three of the latter, Paradigm, APA and Gersh, told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday that they did not intend to do so.

According to the guild, by April 22 over 7,000 writers had fired their agents, out of 8,800 who previously were represented (and out of 14,500 active WGA members). One WGA member told THR on Friday that she wouldn’t return to her agent even if the WGA lost its suit against the four largest agencies, unless her agency ceased packaging.

Indeed, depending on the contours of a ruling, even a loss for the WGA might simply mean that the law doesn’t prohibit packaging fees but that the guild could continue to enforce its own prohibition. In any case, even a preliminary resolution of the case is unlikely for some months, as the WGA’s filing of an amended complaint gives the agencies another 30 days or so to file their responses. If those filings include motions, as expected, there will be further submissions back and forth before a hearing takes place.

Meanwhile, writers have been using online resources, personal networking and managers and lawyers as a substitute for agents. That is indeed the new normal for broadcast staffing season, now underway, and it may be the mode for the June-August development season, as well.