March 18, 2019

David Simon Weighs In On The Agency v. Writer Debate

A year ago, WGA leadership held a series of general meetings to discuss pulling out of the agency agreement, and on April 6th of 2019, the writers will vote on whether or not to change the face of Hollywood forever.

If you've been following the ATA v. WGA you know that things are coming to a head. On March 27th, the members of the WGA will vote on whether or not to hold the ATA to the code of conduct presented to them in regards to packaging. There have been many voices on both sides, and you can follow along with the WGA on Twitter with the hashtag: .

The guild has also pushed back the original March 25 membership vote on that resolution. The online vote will now begin on March 27 at 9 p.m. PT and end March 31 at 10 a.m. PT. Current members in good standing are eligible to vote, with the exception of members who work exclusively in a staff news shop.

Now, David Simon, one of the most prolific and famous writers on the past 20 years, has entered the fray. He penned a scathing blog post about packaging and why writers need to stand together. 

I took the liberty of pulling a few choice quotes for you to see. 

"Just over a quarter century ago, when I was a young scribbler traipsing around the metro desk of the Baltimore Sun, I had an early opportunity to learn a lesson about money, about ethics, about capitalism and, in particular, about the American entertainment industry. And Dorothy Simon, she raised no fools. I only needed to learn it once. I learned about something called “packaging.” And now, finally, my apostasy from newspapering having delivered this older incarnation of myself from Baltimore realities to film-set make-believe, I am suprised and delighted that many of the fellow scribblers with whom I share a labor union have at last acquired the same hard, ugly lesson:

Packaging is a lie. It is theft. It is fraud. In the hands of the right U.S. attorney, it might even be prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering. It’s that fucking ugly."

Simon pulls no punches when it comes to confronting the ATA and WGA's main dispute head-on. He continues, telling a story about how he had a book to movie deal that was victimized by packaging. That's right, even the great David Simon suffered at the hands of his agents because of packaging. 

David Simon and Michael Kenneth Williams at an event for Vice (2013)Credit: IMDb

And for Simon, there is no love lost in that situation. 

"So much of television and film is packaged by the Big Four agencies — CAA, ICM, WME and UTA — that it is now said to be the lion’s share of their income, so much in fact that they are running to Wall Street for equity investment in their producerial role. Fuck repping actors or directors or writers to earn a living. What rube would settle for 10 percent of anything when you can play for 100 percent of your larger stake in a film or a movie?

But of course, the astounding conflict-of-interest that underlies the corruption of packaging doesn’t simply end with the fact that agents no longer have any incentive to properly represent the smaller and less advantaged client in when they are repping both sides of a negotiation. Never mind the relentless obscenity of telling a seller that you can also rep the buyer and claim to still fight for top dollar.

The greater offense is that packaging has now artificially reduced the salaries of all screenwriters over decades, so much so that entry-level salaries for staff writers and story editors in television, for example, are exactly where they were a decade ago save for the cost-of-living increases that the writer’s union achieved on its own. For junior producers, it’s even worse: The salaries for co-executive producers are about 16 percent less than where they were two contracts ago.

The agencies themselves like to claim that this is because shows now order fewer episodes and shorter broadcast seasons than in the past and that this structural change has as much to do with the stagnation than packaging. But of course, that also begs the question: Where the fuck have the agents been to argue on behalf of their clients for a different pay structure, one that acknowledges the changing reality of fewer episodes and more work in the production of each episode?

I’ll tell you where they’ve been. They’ve been in another room, counting cash. Again, the problem with packaging is not merely that clients are poorly repped in negotiations with other clients. No, it’s bigger than that. The problem is that the agency incentive to package shows and provide larger payments to themselves has obliterated any serious thought about aggressively negotiating on behalf of any writer, or actor, or director, large or small.

Why bother to fight for 10 percent of a few dollars more for this story editor or that co-executive producer when to NOT do so means less freight on the operating budgets of the projects that you yourself hope to profit from?  Why serve your clients as representatives with a fiduciary responsibility and get the last possible dollar for them, when you stand to profit by splitting the proceeds of a production not with labor, but with management — the studios who are cutting you in on the back end?  Why put your client’s interest in direct opposition to your own?

No reason at all."

The guild said it is “continuing to meet with the talent agencies in the hope of reaching a negotiated agreement” today but no headway was announced. It's easy to see why Simon and other writers are so fed up with the ATA. One hopes the talks improve but it's hard to see them going forward, especially with all the pent up bad blood. 

Here's how Simon sums it all up: 

"I’m for signing a new code of conduct that requires any agency to abandon packaging before it can be permitted to negotiate with signatories to the WGA contract. And if that means I’ll have to depart from CAA and Jeff Jacobs, then that’s what it means. Bless you, Jake, but right is right and wrong is wrong.

Hell, I’m for more than that.  Personally, I’m for filing a civil suit against the ATA and the Big Four for an overt and organized breach of fiduciary duty in which they have effectively pretended to represent clients while taking bribes from studios to keep those clients’ salaries and benefits lowered across the board. Looking not merely at civil law, but at the federal statutes against extortion and bribery, a curious U.S. Attorney might enjoy a deeper dive into the realm of racketeering, because for the life of me, I can’t see a difference between packaging and any prosecutable case of bid-rigging or bribery I ever covered as a reporter in federal or state courts.

For that matter, I’m for riding around Bel Air and Westwood and Santa Monica in a rental car, running up in the driveways of these grifting motherfuckers and slashing their tires.  I’ve got that much contempt for this level of organized theft and for the tone-deaf defense of it by the ATA. But that’s me as an ex-reporter and a showrunner and a generally pissed-off writer talking.  That guy is all in.  As a WGAE council member, I’ll eschew the vandalism and listen to the members and support the will of the union as a whole.  I just hope, after all these years of being robbed, that my colleagues are as united and as angry as they ought to be."

Here's a link to David Simon's full blog post if you want to read the entire thing. 

What's next? Explore the Writer v. Agency Debate

A 40-year agreement is about to come to an end. And the future of writer representation hangs in the balance. The WGA and ATA are going 12 rounds over the Artists' Manager Basic Agreement, a document signed into existence in 1976 that outlines the basic tenements of how Agents and Managers should represent writers.

Last year, the WGA decided that based on data and testimony collected that agreement needed a serious revamp. Hollywood does not look at all like it did in 1976, and the rise of agencies,  packaging fees, and digital has created murky waters. The Association of Talent Agents, or ATA, was approached by the WGA to start a new negotiation based on these grievances.

Read the article to get the full scoop!         

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