Monday, April 15, 2019

The WGA-ATA dispute -- Where do we stand?

Too early to tell.

The WGA and agents (ATA) could not reach a deal by zero hour this past weekend so we all are obligated to fire our TV and movie writing agents.

Where does that leave everybody? 

Well, we’re now in the first stage – name calling, posturing, threatening, animosity. Lawsuits and counter-suits.

I think it will be interesting so see if writers can in fact get staffed using only managers, lawyers, a submission website, recommendations, etc. and skirt the agency process. If so, writers will have a lot more leverage.

If not, if it’s very chaotic and just a mad scramble, agencies will gain more leverage.

But for either of those scenarios to play out a few months must go by. Just sitting on the sidelines, that’s where I see things going at this moment.  (But I hope I'm wrong.)

Look, producers, networks, studios, agents, whoever – only make concessions when they have to. And unfortunately, that usually requires a work stoppage or mass exodus or some other major protest that hopefully will have enough of an impact to force compromise and concessions. Deals that could have been made amicably eventually do get done but at a big cost with lots of collateral damage. Welcome to Tinsel Town.

Here’s how I imagine it will end, and this is based on nothing more than my observations from the bleachers (so take them with a grain of salt). Package deals will remain, but writers will share in the profits – significantly enough that they’re willing to agree to a deal. What that percentage is, when that will be, what other compromises will be made – that I don’t have a clue.

Now I’m getting on my soapbox. None of this would be an issue if anti-trust laws were still upheld and conflict-of-interest practices were shut down. Agencies need other ways to supplement their income in this era of mass consolidation and will find them (opening sports divisions, representing products like Coca-Cola, etc.) and writers would still have enough on their hands fighting injustices that were shady but still legal.

There was a time in Hollywood when major players like Lew Wasserman of Universal controlled the town. There could be a writers’ strike for three months and when Wasserman decided enough was enough the strike was settled in two days.

There’s no Lew Wasserman.

So for now we just play it out. For the vast majority of you, this battle will have no impact whatsoever. This is not a work stoppage. Your shows will still be produced on schedule. No DEXTER reruns on CBS to fill some gaps. And considering how many other global and national crises we all face daily, it’s probably a relief to know there’s one you don’t have a stake in.

But for those of us in the industry, these WGA-ATA issues are important and will affect the way business is done for years to come. So however it falls, let’s get it right.

UPDATE:  I thought it was clear from the post but apparently not since a number of you keep asking whether I went along with the WGA and fired my agent?  And the answer is yes.  


slgc said...

Best of luck fighting the good fight!

Mike said...

What about you? Did you fire your agent too? You didn't say anything about that 😉

Lisa said...

I read a few articles on this issue. The comments section is filled with nasty comments about writers, probably by agents I guess.

NYT was the worst, phrasing their article in such a way as to portray writers as being a bunch of hacks and the agents as the super talented geniuses who find them work.

Carl said...

"I think it will be interesting so see if writers can in fact get staffed using only managers, lawyers, a submission website, recommendations, etc. and skirt the agency process."

No. Just known writers, writers with buddies in hiring position will be hired. It's game over for the new ones or the ones who were in the margin.

Nepotism will rule. Sure biggies will tweet asking if they can help, send over your bio etc... but nothing will come of it. Just show off.....

Agents were needed the most for the new ones just breaking in.

The whole system sucks and it just got worse.

Smith said...

What if you don't fire. What can WGA do?

Nothing. Hardly anything. Your pension can't be withheld. Just some privileges get hit but apart from that, a big NOTHING.

Writers know this and so only a fraction of the 15,000 will fire their agents. Solidarity my ass.

This thing will blow up on WGA face.

Did Goodman fire his agent? Did you?

Mike Bloodworth said...

How did your plays go?

Lisa said...

Here is the part of the NYT article I spoke about

E. Yarber said...

The problem has been going on a long time and the short-term solution has been to kick the can down the road a little further and worry about fixing it later. I recall the agencies trying to legitimize their packaging practices some years ago and make them an open part of their business, but the response from their clients forced them to pull back. Now with the entire distribution system in flux as streaming drastically changes the game, the conflict between agents and writers has reached a boiling point.

When the original Hollywood model began to collapse in the late 40s, it was agents like Wasserman who consolidated their power by getting major actors and directors a better deal with a percentage of the profits while the studios lost the vertical integration that had kept them financially stable. Right now theatrical distribution, the bedrock of movie production for over a hundred years, is in question as viewing habits change. Netflix achieved dominance of the streaming field by using other companies' back catalog to pay for their development of original product, just as MCA was able to acquire Universal through profits made through their purchase of the Paramount library of films, but the difference is that MCA bought the rights to those films instead of just leasing them. As Disney and Warners prepare their own online networks, a lot of Netflix assets like Marvel Comics and FRIENDS will be migrating back to their source companies. Looks like a seismic change in the business is inevitable and it's necessary to nail down the rights writers can expect while things are in a state of flux, since once the dust settles things are likely to stay in place for a while. We know the studios will arrange matters for their benefit, but there have to be some allowances for the creative side of the operation as well.

Frank Beans said...

E. Yarber has the substance of the conflict correct. This is a culmination of many years of changes in the relationship between writers and studios, and the distribution deals that profit them. With streaming as opposed to syndication deals, there just isn't enough revenue coming in anymore to sustain this business model.

Also, ATA represents people who are the middlemen in all of of this--they have their interests too, however petty they may be. The breaking point here might lead to cutting them out of the entire industry, and they are scared shitless about that.

I can't say anything new, except that nobody knows exactly how this will play out.

WLUP said...

Friday Question:

I heard a Steve Dahl interview recently where he was saying that back in the old days, radio DJ's could make more money doing appearances at bars and such than they would make in the radio salary. Did Beaver Cleaver ever get to do in person appearances?

(Dahl was saying that he originally didn't want to do Disco Demolition at Comisky because he thought the stands would be so empty it would be embarrassing.)

Ted said...

If you don't fire your agents and notify, WGA will hold a trial!!!

What!!??? A trial and then what? Make them watch '2 Broke Girls'?

YEKIMI said...


I can attest to that. I was low man on the totem pole when it came to gigs outside the radio station but I do know that some of the guys made double what they did working at the station. And unless the owner/sponsor of those outside gigs requested a certain DJ to work it, it almost came down to fistfights in the hallway over who was going to do it. If they were the number one morning guy in the market, they could literally make thousands doing an outside gig and sometimes they got to the point that they were so big that they didn't want to do them at all or even do ads for the station. [Only when the corporations and bean-counters took over were they screwed. It was either do ads or take a huge [20% or more] cut in their paychecks.

YEKIMI said...

@ E. Yarber

Right now theatrical distribution, the bedrock of movie production for over a hundred years, is in question as viewing habits change.

Boy, can I attest to that. Now running a chain of drive-in theaters [and soon some indoors], the film companies now say "If you want our product, you will play them at all your theaters or else" or we being forced to take one of their movies that flopped as a second feature thereby watching cars flee for the exit once the main feature is over and decimating the concession sales. The latest salvo a couple of years ago was trying to release a movie to theaters AND having it play VOD [streaming, etc.] at the same time. That failed because some of the big movie chains basically said "Fuck you, we won't play your movie AT ALL and we'll seriously question playing ANY of your movies in the future if you do this."

One of these days they'll figure out a way to bypass movie theaters so they can keep all the money for themselves and theaters will go the way of the Dodo bird.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Will there ever be a time when guilds don't go on strike? Just askin'.

E. Yarber said...

I am going to sorely try everyone's patience by posting a lengthy excerpt from a book I wrote that can never be published:

In their day, American International Pictures was especially attractive to drive-ins. The major studios regarded outdoor venues as downscale markets and refused to taint recent films by releasing them there. AIP allowed these places first-run material.

Since the studio and the drive-in owners were equal underdogs operating on respective shoestrings, they took the unimaginable step of working for their mutual benefit. This decentralized arrangement between the supplier and individual entrepreneurs was the exact opposite of Kroger Babb’s practice of hiring venues and keeping whatever he could make there, yet both methods managed to yield strong returns.

AIP charged a flat rental fee somewhere between $50 and $500 for a film package. This gave the drive-in owners a decent chance to make a profit at $3 per carload of viewers, and they didn’t have to hand over most of the proceeds to a big studio. What AIP may have lost in price gouging was more than made up for in volume, since in the late 1950’s there were over four thousand drive-ins all across the US all hungry for product, and plenty of street-front theaters just as interested in equitable rentals.

And of course the audience was paying a low price for oddball movies that appeared in a steady stream and were at least good enough to keep the kids coming back. And once in a while they seemed better than anything else.

Everybody benefited.

For a bare-bones mercenary outfit, AIP thrived on a surprisingly benign business model. Similar bargain pricing made their catalog an ubiquitous staple of independent TV stations for several years, long after the films had exhausted their theatrical run. These relationships opened the gate for even cheaper fare made directly for syndication. Just as drive-ins could premiere AIP films, small stations could now have their own first-run materials, even if it had to be Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966) (a remake of Corman’s 1956 It Conquered the World) or Mars Needs Women (1967) (a remake of 1964’s Pajama Party).

Constantly feeling the pulse of the market through direct contact with exhibitors, Arkoff and Nicholson would meet every January to decide on the release schedule for the year, mixing original titles with distribution deals and typically designing the advertising campaign for a film before it had even begun production.

They took advantage of lower foreign production costs by picking up US rights to Italian movies as well as filming projects in Rome and London, a practice that eventually brought a variety of exploitation films to the states from various distributors. Americans finally had a chance to see not only Art Films from Europe, but strange schlock that seemed to have been filmed on another planet entirely. This was a flexible approach that minimized risk by placing bets on numerous small films instead of the gamble Hollywood was making (and often catastrophically losing) on big-budget releases like 1963’s Cleopatra or 1967’s Doctor Doolitle.

Independent distribution was becoming so profitable that foreign imports actually outnumbered domestic releases in the mid-60s. And nobody noticed.

The stiff mechanism of the studio system was being outmaneuvered by a swarm of indie companies booking profitable showings in numerous small-scale sites the majors had ignored.

Jeff Boice said...

To E.Yarber: Thanks for your posts. Your statement about both sides kicking the can down the road explains a lot. It isn't like streaming media suddenly appeared- the technology and its implications have been discussed for at least 25 years.

E. Yarber said...

There are certain business patterns and corporate rationales that recur in the entertainment industry as regularly as remakes of Spider-Man, and we have to watch them play out knowing where they're going as sure as we know the actor playing Uncle Ben did not sign a long-term contract.

Edison said "I am the only one who can make movies because I have a patent on the process." Sarnoff said "NBC should be the only network because we manufacture the radios." It didn't take long for those monopolies to crack.

A few years back I listened to small producers at the AFM complaining that Netflix was paying them starvation rates for their films on the grounds that they were the only game in town. That's today's Edison and Sarnoff.

Given the way audiences snicker at the lower prices in old movies or the sight of people talking into portable phones the size of cinder blocks, I can easily see the day when a character saying "Let's Netflix tonight" will get a roar of laughter from a enlightened crowd feeling superior to those primitive savages of the 2010s. Or maybe you'll find some former worshippers sighing about the glory days of Netflix the way Angelinos recall what a revelation the Z Channel had been for them.

Whatever the case, today's status quo will not hold. Think of the example in Ken's latest podcast, where Vestron thought they could begin a film studio on the strength of their success as a VHS manufacturer. Netflix has a business model built on selling itself as a platform. If they have a breakout hit, that individual title will not generate extra revenue from the subscriber the way a tentpole film would spike ticket sales. All the company can do is assume that growth will come from an unlimited number of new subscribers, but eventually their membership will reach a cap and that progress will stall.

Don't forget that they're not just selling movies online, but trying to keep a high price for shares of the company's stock. When they can't point to a specific percentage of additional profits each quarter, the stockholders will begin to wonder if it's time to sell before the worth of their holdings drop. By contrast, Disney stock jumped in price with the news that they're about to begin their own streaming network. Money follows money.

The other corporate mantra is "We can't predict if this new technology of television/home video/streaming is going to make a profit, so we better set residuals at the lowest possible rate, if we pay them at all." During the 2007 strike one executive (may have been Peter Chernin) was saying that in public at the same time as excitedly projecting billions in streaming profits at a stockholders' meeting.

Nearly 50 years earlier, SAG went on strike because actors wanted a percentage of the take companies like MCA were getting from the pre-1947 film libraries they had purchased and were selling to television. MCA had gotten their employee Ronald Reagan back as the head of the union, and he negotiated what was known in the business as "The Great Giveaway." The union agreed to waive all royalties for pre-1948 films in exchange for the studios kicking in a couple million bucks toward a pension fund for actors who were counting on an income from their still-profitable work (which is STILL profitable for the rights holders decades later). Once that job was accomplished, Reagan stepped down from his position at SAG and announced he was going to become a producer or something. Later on he didn't like unions at all.

This is the heart of the current agency issue, where the people supposed to benefit their clients are instead tapping into revenue at the expense of the creators. The thing to remember is that you can't be surprised if the person cutting the pie decides to give you the thinnest possible slice while keeping most of it for themselves, but you shouldn't let them get away with it, especially if you baked the pie yourself.

E. Yarber said...

Like many of you, I am now looking fondly back on the former status quo when I might comment for just a line or two. Normal service will resume soon, I hope.

Anonymous said...

Concern I see is as these media conglomerates buy out, or start, their own streaming services to hawk the product that they re making and squeeze out any other product because it wasn't made by them. ( See Hulu and disney acquistition)
As the studio's, streaming services, agents come together to form a borg like system that would either deny, or hobble, any other products that we will end up in a digital version of the of the system of studio owned theaters that existed before 1948 ( paramount v. US)
I guess fear that this ruling might actually be used against new media wannabe monopoly's the demented ones bogus ag is having the corrupted doj start shilling to have this ruling overruled. First of many attempts to dispose of those pesky laws against monopolies on the books but ignored by the lawless doj and their criminal consigliere of an ag.

Poochie said...

Fri Question;

So what does this mean for those of us in the crowd aspiring to make it in the biz. Is the barrier for entry now easier or harder than it's been? And how would you recommending submitting/breaking in under these new conditions?

DrBOP said...

C'mon.....Mr. Wasserman would have been behind BOTH the strike AND it's settlement; and come out smilin' and EVEN MORE PowerfuL.

E. Yarber said...

The agency situation doesn't really affect beginners, but creators a bit further down the road. This is not a conflict with the studios as in the 2007 strike, so writers are free to submit their work anywhere they can find interest. Story departments and story editors are the ones who generally evaluate writers anyway, even if someone in production is interested in a proposal.

I don't have an agent to fire. The first time I had a script optioned, it was because three people read and unanimously recommended it. The best I could do to protect my interest was send the papers over to someone I knew at the contract department of HBO. She and a co-worker read what I had to sign and she phoned me to say, "This is a standard deal. You're not going to do any better first time at bat, but at least you're not being screwed."

The director signed to the film had been working for a couple of decades. He had an agent. The actors being considered had been in previous studio efforts. They had agents. If the project had gone into production and made a profit, only then would I have moved beyond off-the-rack contracts and would need someone who could negotiate wages in line with the revenue my work had been proven to bring in. The conflict now, of course, is that many agents have been less worried about their clients' income than their own.