Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The WGA vs. ATA (agents)

Lots of you have asked my opinion on the recent struggle between the WGA and talent agencies over “package deals.” It’s about to come to a head and writers might soon have to fire their agents en mass if their agency engages in the practice of package deals. What we’re really talking about here is the big four: CAA, WME, ICM, and UTA.

Package deals are when agencies get a piece of ownership for ostensibly putting the “package” together, lining up their acting, writing, and directing clients. The idea is you have a much better chance of selling something if you have key pieces already in place.

But agencies now package every show, even if it’s just the creator/showrunner. And they make a large profit as a result.

Agencies are also essentially producing their own shows. This leads to conflict-of-interest problems. How can your agent negotiate the best deal for you with the studio if they’re also the studio looking to keep costs down? Back in the 1960’s a company called MCA was doing that. Then-attorney general, Robert Kennedy said they had to choose – studio or agency? They chose studio and morphed into Universal. Through some loopholes agencies are getting around that now.

I think you can see why writers are upset.

But it’s a complicated issue. With all the studio and network consolidation and writers getting fewer development deals, agencies have had to search for alternative ways to make money. Just taking 10% in a shrinking marketplace won’t cut it. They feel they need package deals and creative producing arrangements to survive in this new mega-marketplace. Realistically, I don’t see them giving any of that up without a serious fight.

A further complication: Yes, there are many instances of agents screwing writers. I’ve been the victim of this myself. I’ve fired agents over the years who I felt shafted me. But other agents I’ve had have truly worked on my behalf. They genuinely care about my welfare. It’s one thing to go to war against studios and networks because you KNOW they’re the enemy. You KNOW they’re out to screw you. They take pride in it. But if you have a good agent, he’s working FOR you. You have a real relationship with him. A good agent is your friend, not enemy. So it’s hard to fire your friend. I feel that way about my representation.

Oh, and there’s this additional wrinkle: You can fire your TV writing agent but still be represented by the agency in other areas – say directing or acting, or theatre. So you’re picketing one office but entering another down the hall. Confused yet?

So what’s the upshot? The WGA feels this course will be the most effective. The WGA has been a Godsend to writers. Our fees, pensions, health & welfare, residuals, and various other protections have only come from WGA struggles. I stand by the WGA as I have through numerous work stoppages. And I’m a huge fan of the current WGA president, David Goodman.

My fervent hope is that something can be worked out before April 6 to avoid any upheaval. But this is a tough one. There’s no RFK to step in.

All of this is uncharted territory. Oh well, Hollywood always loves a cliffhanger.

P.S.  There's an article going around by writer David Simon.  You can find it here.  In it he references a sleazy CAA agent, Jeff Jacobs, who he ultimately fired.  It's the same Jeff Jacobs that I once fired.  


Jeff Weimer said...

I knew you would be on this when I read David Simon's rant yesterday.

slgc said...

On the topic of agents, what do you think of Brodie Van Wagenen becoming the Mets' General Manager? One day he's negotiating with the team while representing Jacob deGrom, and the next day he's representing the team and negotiating against deGrom's new agent. I like Van Wagenen in general, but how is this not an incredible conflict of interest?

Clara said...

Here's a solution in that blog which sounds good.

"As a former prosecutor, and current Co-EP (on everything from Law & Order to Man in the High Castle), the history of packaging looks to me a lot like a text book account of a long-term RICO violation. And, as Simon says, if some smart, ambitious Asst US Atty or even a NY or LA Ass’t DA (as I once was, in NY COUNTY under the legendary Robert Morgenthau) wants to pursue the matter, all I can say is that careers have been made on far less. Mendacity and breach of fiduciary duty is a terrible thing, and the civil actions such behavior may or may not give rise to are all well and good, but the power of the prosecutor is just so much more, well, powerful.

But to take Simon’s position a step further: it seems to me it is not enough merely to undo the decades of corrupt practices (the C in RICO, btw, stands for “Corrupt”) by civil and/or criminal actions. Should the members of the WGA vote yes to prohibit packaging, terrific; I am certainly voting YES. But going forward we should maybe think about some form of reparations, and the form that comes to mind to this recovering attorney (and no matter what any of the other Law & Order writers say, and they are all friends and sometimes colleagues, I coined that term) is a 20-year reduction of commissions, from 10% to 5%. Think about it: the WGA gets rid of the Rotten Crass Indigestible Oppression (not what RICO stands for, by the way; Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization is the real acronymic) of packaging, and then sticks the knife in deeper by unilaterally dropping the commission rate five points. No packaging fees! No ten per cent!

And if the agents at the big four kick and scream, let them. There are a lot of young, hungry entertainment attorneys and agents out there who will work their butts off for that 5 per cent, especially if it is 5 per cent of a FUCK WAD LOT MORE MONEY.

PS – If Simon wants somebody to go with along with him to slash tires, well, I’m from Brooklyn, and it won’t be the first tires I’ve slashed."

Lot of writers have commented, I was seeing if you have? Michael Elias who sued CAA has a commented too.

Dhruv said...

I am far away but I do follow a lot about Hollywood especially the agents and their commissions.

Seeing "Entourage" I was able to comprehend that anyone who wants to work in Hollywood needs an agent. Without an agent, no matter how talented you are or how good a script you have, you can't enter the show business.
And bigger the star, more people will take a cut like Manager, Publicist, Accountant.

They should make a movie or a documentary on how writers have been cheated by these agencies. It would make a very compelling story.

E. Yarber said...

The problem is that there's no one-size-fits-all scenario with agents, who can be as variable in their dealings with you as people are in general. The best a contract can do is set basic minimums of service so at least being screwed over is discouraged.

I worked years as a freelancer for one of the big four agencies. At first I was valued because I could explain why a proposed script was artistically sound and commercially viable. Then my damned honesty got in the way of agents who wanted to push a lousy screenplay attached to an irresistible package, while other agents still wanted my input regarding clients they wanted good material for.

Bizarre as it seems, I wound up writing positive coverage within internal documents under a pseudonym so that my name would not be on record endorsing stuff I knew would bomb. All I'd say was stuff like, "This is a script. It has a story and characters. Consider it." A year later, the film would go down the toilet and careers were hurt, but by then the agent had gotten a hefty commission and moved on to other deals. In the end, I was called into the story editor's office and told I would have to be let go because they had to cut back on costs and couldn't afford two sets of notes... honest and short-term profitable. You can guess which of the two they needed more. A studio grabbed me a month later, but I lost all the clients who had regularly asked for me at the agency.

Sooner or later the artists burned by such practices would have to demand fair dealing, which is what we see here. David Simon was properly livid when he found that his agency was shorting him because they represented both sides of the negotiations for HOMICIDE. At the same time, I've worked on teams who built the careers of major performers as carefully as a military operation. Hopefully the current negotiations will end up on the side of honesty and long-term profitability.

Ted said...

Pay the writer - Harlan Ellison.

Sadly that video's comment section is full of morons berating writers for asking what is rightfully theirs.

McAlvie said...

I know nothing about show biz except what I've read on your blog, but it strikes me that there are similarities to what's happening in the corporate world, i.e. stick it to the employees, then complain when they quit that "people don't want to work hard anymore."

Peter said...

Ken, the teaser for Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is out and you get a glimpse of 60s Los Angeles that Tarantino has recreated.

Mike said...

One more head rolls due to sex scandal. Warner Bros head steps down.

Frank Beans said...

I realize more and more from reading this blog, and the anecdotes about network suits, agents, and other players, how much of a miracle it is to get a truly artistically worthy show produced in the first place. MASH, CHEERS, SEINFELD, FRASIER, just to name the top of the list, had to fight against incredible odds just to survive their first season. It must have been an uphill battle fighting every kind of jungle snake predator (mixing my metaphors in the best way here).

I suspect the industry relies on a steady stream of new talent, which then can be rooked into the bait-and-switch: You have your creative idea, they green-light it, and tell you how great you are. You get confident for awhile, thinking you've made it--then you are sucked into their vortex of self-serving commercial crap, because advertising revenue controls it all, and you're really just disposable.

Seems like the story of American life all around.

Tom Chandler said...

Even if your agent wants what's best for you, the conflict of interest is probably irresistible. That agent might be your friend, but when word comes down from above -- and agency is always going to value millions in profits over the clients' welfare -- they're not going to work on your behalf.

There's no way to negotiate for both sides, and worse, the payment that Simon extracted from CAA suggests they know it too. With book publisher contracts demanding movie rights and (essentially) ebook rights forever, and agencies pulling crap like this, it's clear writers have few friends out there. Let's hope the WGA works something out.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I don't know if you're psychic or if your Magic 8-Ball is working overtime, but it seems that every time I decide to give writing a serious effort you put up a blog like this one. Very discouraging.
As I've said in previous blogs, what's the point of even getting out of bed in the morning?

Andy Rose said...

David Simon says in the article that he still works with David Jacobs and considers him one of the semi-good guys. It's Matt Snyder whom he really takes to task (and another individual he can't name because of an out-of-court settlement).

Todd Everett said...

I am sick of Tarantino's crap. The man's hubris to number out his shitty movies and this one he says is his 9th. How many more before he drops dead...

Nine is important to fans (and maybe detractors who somehow feel forced to see his pictures anyway) because he's said that he'll stop with 10.

DrBOP said...

Well this intra-family squabble is tearing APART my Noth Ontario Hollywood-screenwriters-obssessed village.

Two nervous breakdowns....lunch dates being broken all over town....picketing of the local mary-gee-wanna dispensary because one of the girls who works there wrote a play....ONCE!
And "the suits"-defenders in town (there's three), are so non-plussed, they're off to Ell-Eh to see what the pickin's are like.

Please....can't we all get (well-compensated) along.

Tom Galloway said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom in Vegas said...

Thoughts on this?