By the end of the weekend, unless an unlikely, last-minute agreement can be hammered out first, all 13,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (which is to say, just about every working TV writer and screenwriter in the country) will fire their agents en masse. The beef is about — what else? — money. According to the Writers Guild, agents have been doing their members wrong for years, betraying them in a complicated ploy to enrich themselves.
At the root of the feud is a disagreement over how agents should get paid. The writers’ union says that agents should strictly work on commission, earning a percentage of whatever the writers stand to make, so that the agents are inherently incentivized to negotiate the highest possible pay rates for the writers who hire them. In reality, though, agents usually make their money through a far more lucrative and little-understood practice known as “packaging.” It’s a dull, innocuous term for what the writers’ union says can amount to a shady conflict of interest, if not a brazen act of theft.
The way it works, at least in theory, is simple. An agent gets a script from a writer and then bundles together a “package” of talent — a director, a showrunner, a star, all typically represented by the same agency, all signed on to turn the script into a show. If a TV studio bites, the agent collects a “packaging fee” from the studio — a flat sum per episode, plus a percentage of whatever profits the show earns over time.
And that fee is what most of the fuss is about. According to the writers’ union, such fees can perversely incentivize agents to negotiate lower pay-rates for their clients, or fail to negotiate for higher ones, so that they can take home a larger share of the profits for themselves. But just how egregious this betrayal is, and what to do about it, depends on whom you ask. David Simon, for one, suggested on his blog that he had half a mind to resort to street justice. “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 tires,” he wrote.
No one on the writers’ side disagrees that packaging fees are a problem. Last weekend, more than 95 percent of the union members who voted opted to fire their agents unless the agents first sign a new contract swearing off those fees and other conflicts of interest (about a third of the membership didn’t vote at all). But in conversation, some writers — even ones who voted yes, and especially younger ones — said they were skeptical of the WGA’s plan. Staffing season is just beginning, and the WGA has proposed that if the Association of Talent Agents won’t come to the table, the union will attempt to fill the void, providing a sort of job board to connect showrunners and writers, and authorizing managers and lawyers to make the deals that agents usually negotiate. This would likely work out for established writers and showrunners like Simon, who have large teams of people behind them and don’t need agents to forge connections. But less established writers are more vulnerable, and some worried that if they are forced to depend on one another for job security, their careers might take a hit. “I’ve worked on a show for three years,” said one anonymous writer, “and there are people who I got to know who I don’t want to know. I don’t trust any of those motherfuckers. There’s no fucking solidarity in this town.”
On the eve of the looming deadline, Vulture reached out to TV writers and showrunners at different stages of their careers to ask how they felt about what might come next. Most asked for their names to be withheld.
Selwyn Hinds, movie and TV writer (The Twilight Zone, HBO’s forthcoming Who Fears Death)
As far as I know, I’ve never been affected by a packaging deal. Like most of the WGA, I want to make sure we have a system that doesn’t incentive our agents to work at cross-purposes against us. We have to stand firm. But the potential fallout is real, too. As a writer of color, it’s tough enough for us to break in under normal circumstances. And a world in which landing a job — at least for the current staffing season — relies solely on word of mouth and a couple of new systems the guild is setting up is a world that makes me anxious. Fortunately, I’m at a high enough level in television, and also have enough of a feature writing career, that I’m not overly concerned about the implications for my career if negotiations fall through. I’m more worried about the younger writers just breaking in.
My agent and I have had frank and honest conversations about all of this, but I was never asked to vote no. They ride hard for me, as we say around the way. So it’s still gonna suck if this goes down. There’s no sugarcoating that. But the problem isn’t personal. It’s systemic. End of the day, my union is the reason my kid has health care, okay? And if they say it’s time to light the pitchforks, then I gotta look for my matches.
A mid-level writer on network show
I didn’t vote, and actually, I only know one person who did. If I have to fire my agent, I have to, but I have resentment about that. I have good, functional relationships with these people, and the idea that I have to fire them feels crazy. On a personal level, my experience with packaging is that I’ve benefited from it. I’ve been working on a packaged show, but I’m about to take a new job that isn’t packaged, and even though I’m going to get a big pay raise, I’m actually going to take home a couple thousand dollars less a week because of the commission fees. That said, the agencies are a mafia, basically. A cartel. Everything they do is totally scandalous. And it’s possible that this could make things better.
I think even if the whole system gets blown up, I’ll be okay. My lawyer and my manager can step in. But the true chaos is for people who are starting out, who just have an agent. The Writers Guild has this delusion that this job board is going to work, and maybe it will work for people on some levels, but for the most part if you’re in that system, you’re fucked. You’re gonna be begging for jobs. That’s now how this business works.
And maybe David Simon is right — it is racketeering! But the truth is, it’s always been racketeering. Why now? Did he go on a retreat and do some ayahuasca and suddenly become clearheaded about what’s happening in the town that’s been making him rich for decades?
[The WGA says the reason it’s decided to negotiate right now is because writers’ wages have been stagnant for decades while agencies’ profit margins have grown, a trend it says is only going to continue with the rise of Peak TV.]
A staff writer on a cable show with seven years of experience
I’m 1 of the 392 people who voted no. Obviously, I’m going to stand by my guild’s decision because it’s a democracy, but I feel like I was not presented with an argument for a resolution that I thought was sufficiently better. There was so much pressure to vote yes that there wasn’t a lot of room for conversation. I’m not at a top-four agency and my agency doesn’t do packaging. Selfishly, there’s a part of me that’s also like, I don’t understand why I’d have to walk away from my agent who isn’t part of that system, who I love and is doing great work for me. But mostly, I’m just not convinced that any of the money being saved by getting rid of packaging fees is going to come back to the writers — I think it’s somewhat naïve to think so.
The idea that anyone is going to get staffed off the WGA’s job board is totally absurd. They’re talking about hosting mixers. Showrunners are not going to go to a mixer — that’s insane. Showrunners are going to hire their friends. None of it seems to take into account how any part of the hiring process works in practice. It’s all very theoretical.
In some ways, the strike in 2007 felt more fair — everybody was in the strike together. It still affected lower-level writers more, but none of us were working. This feels like it’s not a huge sacrifice for people like me whose lawyers and managers are going to step in, and it is a huge ask for people who really need to get in front of showrunners for staffing season. And I get that the WGA wants leverage in this negotiation, but I’m not that optimistic that there’s going to be an agreement, and there’s not really a plan or a timeline. Are we just going to be agentless for the foreseeable future? There’s a weird presumption that everyone hates their agent, but personally, for me, this is very bad timing. It’s already chaotic, and it’s only going to become more chaotic.
Adam Conover, creator and host of Adam Ruins Everything
I’m feeling very confident about the WGA’s position. Even if the worst happens, the next day we’ll wake up in L.A. and in New York, and there will be the exact same number of jobs, of job openings, of dollars to go around for writers, and studios will want just as many movies to come out. Our normal way of getting those jobs is going to change, but that’s about it. And that’s a problem we can solve through solidarity and helping each other out.
I think the guild’s plan to fill in the gap left by the agencies will work. We’re not yet picked up for a new season, but say we were, we could easily use the staffing submission system they’ve set up. On our show — and I realize this is not the case for every show — I don’t even know who any of the writers’ agents are. We literally just take submissions. We send out a request for packets, people send them in, and we read all of them, blind, and rank them. Our show has historically given a lot of writers their first job, and part of that is that we’re at the bottom end of budgets for WGA shows. I certainly understand how all this could seem to a newer writer, and it is a worrisome thing to no longer have their agency represent them. But this is actually most important for them because they are the ones left most exposed by the conflict of interest. According to the guild, it’s the newest writers whose wages have been dropping and stagnating for many years, and it makes sense. If you’re a successful showrunner and you’re creating a new show, you’ve probably got an agent and a lawyer and a manager, and the clout to get more money. If you’re starting out, you’re dependent on the incentives that your agent has, so the conflict of interest is going to matter a lot more to you.
This is what I want to convey to new writers who are scared right now: If my show is picked up, I’m going to hire just as many writers as before, and no guild writer will be excluded from our hiring process because they lack representation. I’d be naïve to think that every single showrunner will be as proactive as I am, but I have a hard time seeing how anyone would be excluded right now by not having an agent. We still have managers and lawyers, all of those things can pick up the slack. We still have our networks of other writers. That makes me feel optimistic. I’ll be honest — I’m in a position of privilege, but I’ll use that position to help every writer who’s in the guild.
A first-time TV writer who has a project in development
It’s a very real problem that the WGA has identified, but at the same time, to be forced to fire our agents or give up our guild memberships will leave a lot of writers vulnerable and sometimes without livelihoods. The WGA has set up a system for staffing submissions, which may work for some people. But without agents getting us work, it will likely rely even more on who you already know than it does now, leaving those who haven’t yet forged their own connections the most vulnerable. And nobody has addressed the issue of younger or newer writers who have television projects in development — if you’re not a big name or an established writer or showrunner, it will be much harder, or nearly impossible, to get something off the ground without agents.
The show I’m developing right now was packaged by one of the big agencies, and it probably wouldn’t exist without packaging. I barely know my television agents, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to the show if I have to fire them. The WGA is saying that managers and lawyers will pick up the slack, they’ll do the deals and keep everything running, but I don’t think they are all onboard the way the WGA presumes they are. I spoke to my manager, and she doesn’t seem to support it at all. If she’s not onboard, it’s going to be much harder to make all this work. But in the likelihood that no deal is made, I will have to fire my agent. I am reluctant to have to jeopardize my budding TV career, and my ability to make a living. But we have a baby, so losing guild membership and the health care that goes with it would be, in our case, totally untenable.
In the end I didn’t vote — not because I didn’t want to participate, but because I felt totally split down the middle. You don’t want to be the person who doesn’t support your guild. At the same time, I don’t feel certain of their negotiating ability. As a young writer, you aspire to join the guild, and it’s really exciting when you first get initiated. It feels like writers are on their own to choose between these two very important entities — their agents or their union, which feels like an impossible choice.
A mid-level showrunner with about 15 years of experience
Writers have a whole range of relationships with their agents. For some it’s purely transactional. Others are close friends and essentially partners. The idea that we’ve given the union the authority to make this happen is very nerve-racking. In certain cases, it almost feels like we’re giving them the authority to say we have to get a divorce.
I have a great relationship with my agents. They have always been very transparent with me and understanding when I tell them that I don’t want to do something they might prefer I do. We’ve spoken briefly about all of this, and I think we have an unspoken understanding that we want all of this to be resolved as quickly as possible so we can get back to the business of making shows and not have this awkward storm cloud lingering over the proceedings. I’ve been lucky. I acknowledge that my experience is not the same as everyone else’s. I know there are other agents who are a little bit shadier, and there are agents who are full-on crooks.
There are a lot of wild rumors floating out there about what will happen next. I think everyone’s deepest fear is that the agencies have done the math and said, “We can make more off packaging producers and directors and performers and non-writing elements than off the commissions of all of our clients combined.” So if the writers walk, the agencies might say, “Well, best of luck. We’re just not going to rep writers anymore.” I think the guild would make a compelling argument that it would be nearly impossible to do packaging without writers, but there’s a lot of the fear of the unknown. In the end, I don’t think the guild had any choice. There’s this very obvious conflict of interest, and if it doesn’t at least make an attempt to rectify the situation, then what is it doing?
An early career staff writer on a streaming network
I’m feeling pretty great right now. Voting is scary, especially for people who hate confrontation (a lot of writers!), so I was excited to see a great turnout and an overwhelming yes vote. It is anxiety-inducing, but now that I understand how sinister packaging is, I do want change.
I had no idea what packaging was before all of this started. I’ve worked on packaged shows and shows without packaging, and pretty much all I understood was that I didn’t have to pay a commission fee if the show was packaged — and frankly, I was pretty stoked to not pay that commission. But at the end of the day, I’d rather pay the commission and know that this insidious thing isn’t happening anymore.
Right now, I’m in the lucky position where I’ll still have a job for a while, so the stakes maybe feel artificially low. But I really don’t know. I haven’t worked as a professional writer without my agent, so I don’t have a template.
A first-year staff writer on a cable show
I voted no. My overall thing is that I totally get the fight, and while I was reading David Simon’s piece, it’s like, “Yeah, fuck them. Fuck them for trying to fuck us for so long and for not being forthright, not being transparent, and for all the drug money that they’re not sharing.” But I’m newer to the game, and even if writers can help get each other jobs, I still want my agents. It’s weird because I think of myself as a very progressive, liberal person, but this whole process has made me feel more conservative because I want to have a longer dialogue about how we can make packaging work for us. Yes, now is for sure a time for change, but do we have to burn it all down?
I get that there’s a conflict of interest. I just got a double bump on the show that I’m on — I was promoted two slots up the hierarchy — and I tried to get my agent to make this negotiation for me. Essentially, she was scared to because she’s asking the people who pay her to pay me more. And in the end, I ended up talking to the showrunner directly, and I got the raise I wanted without her. I’d like to have the confidence in myself to say, Fuck it, I’ll be fine. But the fact is, even with all the flaws, I like having one of the big-four agencies in my corner. It’s fucking great for me, and if I fire them, who’s to say whether I’ll get that back. Especially as a writer of color, I feel like someone needs to get on the phone and tell the showrunners and producers who I am before they read my spec script. These rooms are about the best writers, but they’re also about people you want to spend time with. Relationships are basically the whole business, and even my bloodsucking agent is meant to foster relationships. A little website is not a fix for that. We’re just going to be floating, and people aren’t going to give a fuck. There are going to be casualties for sure.
I just joined the WGA last year, and I remember during my orientation last fall at WGA West, they mentioned that the next big fight would be with the agencies. And they were like: “Cheers!” They had this side smile like, This is our next adventure. And I was like, Excuse me? I thought they were talking about orienting me into this business. This was more like a disorientation.