A vast majority of the TV and film writers represented by the Writers Guild of America East and West have fired their agents, at least temporarily, over the issue of those agents getting packaging fees.
WGA describes TV packaging fees as "when an agency demands to be paid directly by the studio rather than commissioning talent at 10%." In that case, it says, "the agency has no financial incentive to get TV writers more money."
WGA filed suit last week asking a Los Angeles Superior Court to declare the fees unlawful and enjoin the agencies from future deals. They also want damages and disgorgement of "illegal profits."
At the same time, WGA has asked its members to fire their agents unless they agree to sign a Code of Conduct that specifically disallows the practice.
According to a memo to members Tuesday (April 22), WGA says that of the 8,800 members with an agent as of April 12, the guild has delivered the "first batch" of over 7,000 termination letters to the relevant agencies, primarily William Morris Endeavor (WME), Creative Artists Agency (CAA), United Talent Agency (UTA), and ICM Partners (ICM), who were all named in the suit.
That comprises 99% of the members who signed a statement of support for the move, says WGAW, which calls that an astounding number. WGAW says most of the other writers yet to fire their agents are either retired or no longer actively working in the business, but the guild will reach out to those, too.
In the meantime, the agentless writers have formed an ad hoc self-help society, WGA sass, with "showrunners reading scripts, writers boosting other writers through mixers, hashtags, Google spreadsheets, or just one-to-one member outreach."
The guild is also providing some tools, including serving as an agent of sorts via a "Weekly Feature Memo" subscription e-mail it will send out featuring members' "available specs and pitches to producers and development execs," organized by genre, with a link to WGA's Find a Writer directory for interested producers. WGA is also reaching out to studios to inform them of that process.
The Association of Talent Agents (ATA) argues that "packaging, by definition, keeps more money in writers’ pockets," saying on its web site: "Clients come to agencies to get their projects made and to keep them on the air. A failed show makes no money for the agency –it’s a loss. Agencies’ interests are aligned with their clients when they package, just like they are aligned when they commission clients."
Writers say the fees violate the law in two ways. First, they claim that agents, as fiduciaries under state law, are required to provide their individual clients with undivided loyalty, while the fees are a conflict of interest that pits the financial interest of the agency against their own client. Second, they say, the fees violate California's Unfair Competition Law because they violate the "antikickback" provisions in federal law that prevents "'any representative' of an employee from receiving any 'money or other things of value' from the employee’s employer."
The suit and mass firing comes after the guild failed to strike a new Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement (AMBA) with the ATA, in part because the guilds are not happy that their agents also get to be their programming producers, saying that is a conflict of interest given that makes them both the writers' employers and employees.