Rian Johnson Won't Have to Pay 'Star Wars' Commissions to Fired Agent

Rian Johnson - Getty - H 2019
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon

On March 20, 2014, Rian Johnson had a momentous meeting that would shape his career and land him in court for years. On that day, the director was presented with the opportunity to write and direct Star Wars: Episode VIII. Johnson didn't immediately commit. Instead, he told Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy he'd think about it. But the meeting provoked a different move on the director's part. The following day, Johnson decided to fire his agent, Brian Dreyfuss, who had been representing him for about a decade.

Why did he do it? The reason was made clear in a decision this past week from California Labor Commissioner Lilia Garcia-Brower.  Although it would take another 18 months before Johnson came to a final agreement to direct Star Wars, he didn't want to fork over 20 percent of his earnings from this prospectively lucrative project. Unfortunately for Dreyfuss, the move paid off for Johnson. The fired agent won't be seeing a penny from The Last Jedi.

Since 2016, Dreyfuss has been seeking owed commissions from Johnson.

In reaction to a lawsuit, Johnson filed a petition before the California Labor Commissioner alleging “years of improper conduct” that required Dreyfuss to disgorge commissions already paid on projects including Pacific Rim and Godzilla as well as a declaration that nothing was owed for Star Wars.

Until he was terminated, Dreyfuss had represented Johnson at various firms, particularly at the Featured Artists Agency. Nevertheless, by 2011, Johnson was looking for more in his career. He hired the Creative Artists Agency as additional representation. Whether out of loyalty or some other reason, it took three years before Johnson would finally choose between the two. Until then, he was paying 10 percent commissions to each firm.

It was CAA that helped arrange meetings between Johnson and Kennedy — and that fact ultimately matters most of all.

The California Labor Commissioner heard arguments from Dreyfuss and FAA that various contractual riders applied to their relationship with a star client, but according to the decision — filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday —  Garcia-Brower found nothing enforceable but an oral agreement governed by California's regulations on talent agents. In particular, there's an aspect of California code that only permits agents to recover oral agreement fees if they have a direct role in procuring a client's work. Under this provision (§12002), agents can’t collect on commissions for any agreements not in effect at the time of termination.

The Labor Commissioner says that if Johnson actually had a written agreement with FAA, the “timing of FAA’s firing would be valuable evidence of bad faith,” but problematic for FAA — there wasn’t evidence it “would be owed a commission even if, arguendo, Mr. Johnson had not fired FAA and had continued to work solely through CAA to obtain the job.”

If there's anything of comfort to Dreyfuss and FAA, they won't have to turn over commissions already received from Johnson on other projects.

Johnson pointed to old franchise agreements between the Association of Talent Agents and his unions — the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America. Under those agreements, writers and directors can't be required to pay more than 10 percent in commissions. So if Johnson had to pay both CAA and FAA, this would mean  double the cap.

The California Labor Commissioner notes that the “record is devoid of evidence that he was duped or coerced into paying each of his agents a 10% commission or that FAA failed to provide consideration for the commissions it received.”

But even if two talent agencies could legally be barred from collecting a 10 percent commission on the same project, Garcia-Brower rules there's a lack of specificity in the record to make any determination or apply a rule where one agency would have to forfeit its fee.

Johnson was represented by Aaron Moss and Daniel Stone. Dreyfuss and Featured Artists Agency were represented by Randy Merritt.