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Hollywood Writers Attempt Life Without Agents

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In mid-April, seven thousand Hollywood writers fired their agents. The collective action came at the behest of their union, the Writers Guild of America, and followed several months of failed contract negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents, or the A.T.A. At issue are two agency practices—“packaging” clients and charging studios for access to them, and starting their own production companies—which, according to the Writers Guild, are diminishing the mutual economic interest that writers and their agents have traditionally shared. Negotiations are scheduled to resume again in June, but the impasse could take weeks, if not months, to resolve.

The firings took place just before staffing season, when broadcast networks fill hundreds of writing jobs for the year ahead. Writers posted images of the letters they sent terminating their agents. One posted a page from the screenplay of “Norma Rae”—the scene where Sally Field holds aloft her sign reading “UNION” on the factory floor. But many writers liked their agents, and schmoozing can be hard for introverts.

“I don’t know how to negotiate at all. I’m a literature major,” Julieanne Smolinski, who writes for the Netflix comedy “Grace and Frankie,” said. Of her former agent, Jordan Cerf, at William Morris Endeavor, or W.M.E., she said, “All I have to do normally is call him and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to get a job,’ and he calls me back a few days later.” She considers Cerf her friend. They have the same dog trainer. Cerf takes her out on her birthday. They still follow each other on Instagram, like exes. “I feel maternal concern,” she said, wondering how he spends his days.

“It was really hard, because my agents and I definitely hold opposing views on the situation,” Liz Alper, who was recently a writer for the ABC drama “The Rookie,” said. “For me, it was basically saying to a relative, ‘I know you voted for Trump, and I love you, but I very much didn’t, and I don’t agree with you, and we can’t work together now—or, at least, for the time being.’ ”

Not everyone is on good terms. In May, Deadline reposted a Twitter thread by Jorge Reyes, a writer who fired his agents at Gersh for the union cause, then decided to hire a new agent at Verve, a midsize agency that has agreed to accept the Writers Guild’s code of conduct. Someone from Gersh then cancelled a scheduled meeting at Fox without letting Reyes know. “If they did that, who’s to say they wouldn’t badmouth/talk shit to the execs I’ve already met?” Reyes wrote. (In a statement, Gersh said, “When the client signed with another agency, the meetings were removed from the books as is normal protocol.” Reyes said that the agency later apologized.)

The exchange indicated the extent to which agents, who work for the writers who hire them, also hold power over those writers’ careers. The last time that the Writers Guild and the A.T.A. negotiated a contract was in 1976, and, in the years since, agencies have become bigger and more powerful. Seventy per cent of television and film writers are now represented by four talent agencies: W.M.E., United Talent Agency (U.T.A.), Creative Artists Agency (C.A.A.), and I.C.M. Traditionally, agents have earned ten per cent of the income that they help negotiate for their clients. Now an increasing amount of an agency’s income comes from packaging fees—the fees they charge to the studios to provide access to talent for a particular television show or feature film. When a writer’s work gets packaged, she does not have to pay her agent ten per cent, but she is also left uncertain whether her script went to the highest bidder or if her interests were folded into a deal that represented the best outcome for her agent.

The Writers Guild claims that packaging is working both sides of a deal. “If you saw it in sports representation, if an agent could say, If you want this player, you have to pay me directly for access to him, that would seem crazy,” John August, a screenwriter of the new “Aladdin” remake and other movies, who is part of the W.G.A.’s negotiating committee, said. “Yet that’s the thing that’s happened for decades in Hollywood.” The A.T.A. claims that packaging allows more shows and movies to get developed, financed, and made, and that representing the group of creative talent on a given project is more valuable than prioritizing the incentives of each individual.

Some agencies have also started producing their own shows and movies, which, in some cases, could make an agency both a writer’s client and her boss. The Writers Guild claims that affiliated studios, as they are known, could get preferential treatment from agents who work for the same companies, and that an agency-owned studio would have an incentive to increase its own share of the profits rather than the profits of its clients. (The A.T.A. said, in a public statement, that “more buyers will equate to more opportunities for artists and a more vibrant marketplace.”) The Writers Guild has demanded that agencies sign a code of conduct that would limit them to the traditional ten-per-cent, commission-based model. The biggest agencies refused to sign. So the writers fired them.

In addition to the mass firing, the Writers Guild has sued Hollywood’s four biggest agencies, claiming that packaging fees are a violation of an agency’s fiduciary duty to its clients. One of the plaintiffs in the Writers Guild’s lawsuit against the agencies is David Simon, the creator of the HBO series “The Wire” and “The Deuce.” In a post on his Web site, last March, Simon detailed his own negative experiences with packaging, a practice in which he has refused to participate since learning, in the nineties, that the television adaptation of his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” had been packaged without his consent.

“Motherfucker, you’re talking about bad precedents?” Simon writes, re-creating a conversation with his agent. “C.A.A. repped both sides of a negotiation without informing me so that your taste of the profits would dwarf mine, your client.”

In the same post, Simon noted that television has been all but recession-proof, and that the conflict was “an argument over an embarrassment of riches.” Still, many writers’ wages have stagnated, a problem that the Writers Guild attributes to agents not doing their jobs and that agents claim is caused by other factors, including shorter television seasons. The W.G.A. estimates that agencies earn at least a hundred and fifty million dollars each season from packaging shows, money that comes directly out of production budgets. If a show is profitable, a typical packaging arrangement gives an agency a percentage of profits. For a feature film, an agency is typically paid five per cent of the production’s budget to secure talent, including writers.

Without the intellectual property that writers create, the Writers Guild argues, agencies would have nothing to sell. “The folks that write movies and television, if they’re not bringing in the most money, they’re definitely the ones that are starting projects,” August told me. “You want to have a strong lit department”—the part of an agency that works with writers—“because that gives you the capital that generates all the projects down the road.”

Agents typically get scripts in front of producers and showrunners, urge people to read the scripts, negotiate payments above the minimums set by the union, advise clients on which offers to take seriously, and look the part of power-wielding sharks by being the only people in Los Angeles to dress regularly in suits. This year, they’re doing less of that. Writers can only speculate about how their agents are filling their time; except for a few public statements by the C.E.O.s of the major agencies, the agents have stayed mostly silent.

“We’re not honestly talking about what their daily life is like during this period,” August, who is friends with the agent he fired, David Kramer, a president at U.T.A., said. “I’ve got to imagine it’s strange going from a time where you’re making a hundred phone calls a day to a lot less than that.” (My attempts to speak to agents at the big four agencies were uniformly rebuffed.)

The conflict has not stopped television from getting made. It has just changed the process. Krista Vernoff, the showrunner of “Grey’s Anatomy,” on ABC, told me that she had just finished hiring thirteen writers for two other shows. Only one of those writers came through the traditional system, from a boutique agency that had reached an agreement with the Writers Guild. “One is the husband of a friend who I never would have read in the past,” she wrote in an e-mail. “One came at the recommendation of a close friend. Several came to me through self-advocacy, direct submission, and Twitter boosts. Half are women, half are men. Half are people of color. It’s the most diverse, inclusive group I’ve ever hired. It took extra effort for sure, but it was actually fun.”

“The thing that varies is the level of suffering, post-firing,” Lisa Best, a standup comedian, wrote in an e-mail. Best, who describes herself as “a low level LGBT lady writer who has only been staffed once,” said that she supports the W.G.A., but added, “that doesn’t stop me and other low level writers from feeling like peasants who had to fire the dude that brought us bread so the nobles could eat better.”

She summarized her process in recent weeks:

Read Deadline, find out a show I’d be right for got renewed for season
two, find out that show was staffed a month ago, scream into a pillow,
read a pilot, ask a friend of a friend of a friend if she could send
my sample to the showrunner because she used to be the showrunner’s
boyfriend’s dog walker, she says no that’s weird, find out through a
different source she’s promoting her assistant anyway, this happens
three more times, wonder if I should go backwards and be an assistant,
cry till my left contact falls out.

The W.G.A. has set up a number of stopgap measures, including an app by which television writers can submit to open requests by showrunners, and weekly e-mails of pitches for pilots and films. Simon wrote to me that, while his projects are fully staffed at the moment, when it comes time to hire again he will put out feelers through the W.G.A.’s channels “as a matter of solidarity.” He added, however, that, “to this moment, after 25 years in this game, I haven’t once hired a writer who was introduced to me by an agent.”

Coming at a moment when many in Hollywood are expressing frustration about the industry’s lack of diversity in high-profile positions, it remains unclear whether the temporary removal of agents will result in more exclusivity or less. “I don’t know that the volume of nepotism in Hollywood could be expanded,” Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who writes for Netflix’s forthcoming revivals of “The Dark Crystal” and the Japanese anime series “Cowboy Bebop,” said. Grillo-Marxuach started the Twitter hashtag #WGASolidarityChallenge as a way for upper-level writers to recommend the talents of lower-level colleagues during staffing season. Another hashtag, #WGAStaffingBoost, started by LaToya Morgan, a writer on AMC’s “Into the Badlands,” was taken up by writers trying to boost their own careers.

“There was a lot of concern about people who were just getting their start and who were relying on their agents to make the introductions and connections that they needed to get that next job,” Alper, who started compiling the #WGASolidarityChallenge posts into spreadsheets to make them more permanent and searchable, said.

At least one person has suggested that agents might one day be replaced by automation. Gavin Polone, a producer whose credits include the new movie “A Dog’s Journey,” wrote a column for the Hollywood Reporter predicting that the Writers Guild’s app is a beta version of technology that might put agents out of business, in the same way that Airbnb and Amazon have enabled the elimination of middlemen.

For now, the shakeup has given renewed purpose to networking events. Amy Aniobi, who writes for HBO’s “Insecure,” started hosting a series of mixers five years ago as an effort to make sure lower-level writers of color weren’t “siphoned off into a corner.” In the past, the parties had never attracted more than a hundred people. But this year, Aniobi has had to cap attendance at a hundred and fifty people, with long wait lists to get in. The parties have had a minimum of four showrunners as hosts, and are more like job fairs. Aniobi and a co-host, Zoe Marshall, who writes for the CW fantasy series “Charmed,” threw four mixers during staffing season, standing on tables to direct interactions so that writers didn’t feel “weird or thirsty,” as Aniobi put it. “Maybe the way we find talent right now is changing,” she said. “You have to find new ways to do the things you need to do.”

Which isn’t to say that writers aren’t missing their agents. “My life was easier when I had an agent,” Grillo-Marxuach said. But he added that things are working out all right, although he is not currently looking for a job. “You can live without a leg. You want a leg, but if you don’t have it there are many ways to continue to walk.”



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