The WGA argues that both practices present conflicts of interest. How can my agents negotiate in good faith on my behalf if they are also participating in the profits that the television show might generate? In theory, a packager and/or producer stands to make more money by depressing the wages of the writers, actors, directors, and so forth attached to any given show. The agencies claim that waiving their usual 10 percent commissions, as is standard on packages, more than offsets this conflict. The truth turns out to be somewhat murkier.
Read: Organized labor’s growing class divide
In the weeks leading up to Friday night’s expiration of the 43-year-old agreement between the WGA and the ATA, and the WGA’s call for all writers to fire their agents, the WGA sent out regular email blasts with long lists of members who said they had been screwed by their agents in packaging deals. They had put in long hours and made only hundreds of thousands, while their agencies made millions. On Twitter, numerous writers spoke out against the evils of packaging and the blue I Stand with the WGA button began to trend, at least among those I follow. Most writers I spoke with found themselves philosophically in support of the WGA’s position, but personally uncomfortable at the prospect of firing their agents. Most of us like our agents. Few of us have been in the position of having shows of our own creation packaged. Some of us wish we were lucky enough to be in that position.
During negotiations, the WGA asked agencies to sign code-of-conduct letters forbidding packaging and producing. No major agency signed. Then, this past weekend, the WGA told us to sign form letters informing our agents that they no longer represented us. “Once your agency is again in good standing with the Writers Guild,” our letters read, “we can reestablish our relationship.”
I have no doubt that the big machers in our guild, showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes and J. J. Abrams, will have little trouble “reestablishing” their relationships. In fact, while they might have fired their agents as writers, they might still be represented by those very same agents as producers or directors. I heard one such showrunner most vociferously decry the WGA’s brinkmanship; he warned a room full of more junior writers that we would be the ones who would end up paying the price for what he termed “the WGA’s belligerence.”
The agencies make the majority of their income from a few clients. They put up with the rest of us because of the belief that we might one day become cash cows. For those of us a little long in the tooth or whose career trajectories are less promising, the showrunner had this warning: “Thanks for playing.” Another TV writer I know said he was told that the agencies would love to trim their rosters of as many as 75 percent of their writer clients. (During a three-month writers’ strike in 2007, the studios and networks similarly used the occasion to clean their development slates of long-standing and languishing projects. Many writers never recovered.) I immediately wondered whether I would survive such a culling of the herd. What would my career be like without WME? I don’t know that I would even have a career.