Last week, I completed my 20th week of a 20-week contract as executive story editor on an upcoming Netflix show: the live-action reboot of the anime series Cowboy Bebop. Don’t let the word executive in that title fool you; nothing about my job was managerial or supervisory. I am a grunt-level TV writer, in my third season on my second show, pretty far down the list of calls that my agents at William Morris Endeavor (WME) might make on any given day.
During this era of peak TV, with more television shows produced every year than have ever been produced before, and with more outlets appearing every week—Disney announced its streaming service, Disney+, last Friday—the men and women who create those shows now find ourselves at odds with our representatives. The current dispute between the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the trade union representing screenwriters, and the Association of Talent Agents (ATA), the professional association of Hollywood talent agents, comes down to the business models of the Big 4 agencies: WME, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), International Creative Management Partners (ICMP), and United Talent Agency (UTA). One issue is their practice of charging studios for “packaging” fees, rather than taking the traditional 10 percent commission from their writers. The other, and perhaps larger, issue is the agencies’ more recent entry into the business of producing their own television shows and films through in-house content divisions, such as WME’s Endeavor Content and CAA’s Wiip.
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.
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.
Why, then, did more than 95 percent of writers, including me, vote to support the labor action? For one thing, television and film writers tend to be aggressively liberal and believe in the rectitude of trade unionism and the efficacy of collective bargaining. Working television writers and screenwriters, unlike freelance writers in most other mediums, receive generous health benefits (though hardly gold-plated as the studios claimed during the last near-strike, in 2017) and can qualify for a pension. Those benefits were hard-won by our predecessors. In 1960 the guild went on strike for health benefits. As part of the settlement, in exchange for the studios contributing to a health fund, the writers gave up some residuals on pre-1960s projects. Studios and networks who hire writers are now required to contribute 10.5 percent of writers’ earnings to the guild health plan; that rate was increased to avoid the 2017 near-strike. Digital streaming networks, such as Netflix, Amazon, and the upcoming Disney+, pay the same WGA minimums as traditional studios and networks; that arrangement was won by the strike in 2007. Writers also receive residual payments when films and television shows are re-aired on cable networks or from DVD sales; that money was won by a strike in 1981. Television and film writers are well paid. I was making nearly $8,000 a week for those 20 weeks, and I was among the lowest-paid writers in the room. We lower- and mid-level writers haven’t forgotten that our predecessors walked picket lines so that we could earn that money. When our union tells us to fire our agents, we fire our agents.
Yet as I look back on my own nascent career as a television writer, I notice that my agents seemingly went against the laws of capitalism when they negotiated a bump in my fee despite the fact that Cowboy Bebop was a WME package. In other words, they negotiated against their economic self-interest. How to explain such a contradiction of the basic laws of economics and the WGA’s argument? I can’t. And that’s why firing them seemed like such a mistake to me. I sent Abe and Scott an email, taking a measured and neutral position toward this whole mess, hoping we can work together on the “other side” of it.
Will we? That’s the question that every workaday writer I know is asking.