But I'm not a lawyer. I'm an agent.
April 7, 2019 9:26 AM   Subscribe

In another example of collective action at work, the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) is not backing down in its fight with the major talent agencies. Representatives from four major talent agencies blinked three hours ahead of a midnight deadline, conceding that their common business practices constitute a conflict of interest in exchange for an extension until April 12th. David Simon explains the evils of the major agencies' practices as inherently at odds with an agent's fiduciary duty to their clients, in the way only David Simon can, by telling the story of how he got screwed on Homicide: Life on the Street. He also thinks it's a major RICO case waiting to happen.

Simon and the WGA contend that "packaging" and other practices (including agencies getting involved with back end and production deals directly with studios), over the past few decades, have resulted a steady erosion in compensation for writers while the agencies get rich. So rich that some are now pursuing IPOs. (Which might explain why they blinked.) The agencies now have until the 12th to sign the WGA's agreement or, the WGA contends, they will no longer represent WGA writers. Meanwhile the WGA appears to have been preparing for the long game: they've released an app to help senior writers and producers staff their shows with writing talent ahead of TV staffing season.
posted by schadenfrau (23 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
You grifting, soulless fuckbonnets.
posted by thelonius at 9:38 AM on April 7, 2019 [26 favorites]

Yeah I kinda undersold the Simon piece
posted by schadenfrau at 9:43 AM on April 7, 2019 [17 favorites]

The Simon piece was great and actually explained what the fight was about, I recommend reading that one if, like me, you have no idea. The others are a bit more inside baseball.
posted by jeather at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

I tried to keep it short and sweet, but:

Tl;dr: agents have been packaging all the talent for a show or movie or whatever in one deal that they make with the studio, representing everyone, including themselves, at once while negotiating with the studios. All but the A-list get screwed out of compensation, and the agencies take it instead. On top of this they’ve gotten into production itself. There are all sorts of legal and not so legal terms thrown around — corruption, racketeering, double-dealing, collusion — but the upshot is that the agencies and the studios worked together to keep compensation down for everyone but the most famous. David Simon found out when he became famous enough to be the screwer rather than the screwee. This has been going on for decades, and something like 90% of all deals are done this way through the four major talent agencies.

The WGA is planning on firing all of them rather than put up with it anymore. (The recent vote was something like 95% in favor.) There is some question on how this will affect writers who are already less likely to be represented, and there are writers expressing solidarity as staffing season starts. A lot of this stuff is happening on Twitter, so there are probably hashtags, but I am very Twitter averse.

Either way, this is a foundational fight right in the middle of the golden age of tv.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:16 AM on April 7, 2019 [27 favorites]

Wait, just so I got this right:

1. CAA didn't tell Simon that they represented both him and Barry Levinson.
2. CAA represented each of them in a head-to-head, adversarial negotiation.
3. CAA got Simon to sign on the dotted line by getting him 10% more on his little tiny writer cut -- and they did that not because it was the best deal they could get him, and in fact, that money didn't come from the studio's pocket, but their own, and they were willing to pay it because they were getting a percentage of the studio's much, much larger cut of proceeds in return for delivering both Simon and Levinson for the project.

Is that right? Because if so, CAA fucking represented EVERYONE in the deal, and deceived at least one person so that they could collect a bigger payday for themselves personally.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:19 AM on April 7, 2019 [12 favorites]

From an NYT piece:
Meredith Stiehm, the creator of the CBS hit “Cold Case,” which aired from 2003 to 2010, said she discovered a $75,000-per-episode fee earmarked for Creative Artists when she was asked to cut the show’s budget 134 episodes into its run. She asked Warner Bros., the studio behind the show, if it would cut that fee, only to be told no, she said.

[...] Sonya Rosenfeld, a Creative Artists agent who represented Ms. Stiehm, said she had informed her client of the arrangement from the get-go.

“I do find it incredibly hard to believe that a showrunner who had a fiduciary responsibility overseeing a multimillion-dollar budget of a series and who looks at a budget every single season would not have known about this until Season 6,” Ms. Rosenfeld said.
Uh, Ms. Rosenfield: you're meant to represent Ms. Stiehm's best interests, not hide your cut in the small print! Absolutely shocking.
posted by adrianhon at 10:24 AM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

Aaaaaand the big 4 (CAA, WME, UTA, and that other one) have been doing it, repeatedly, all the time, for decades.

And NOW I’ll stop threadsitting! But if television goes all wonky, this is possibly why.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:25 AM on April 7, 2019

This was an amazing, infuriating read.
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 staffwriters 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.
One of the great benefits of unions that we don't really realize: if you reach a point of some power and influence in your career, if you feel like you'd like to keep your colleagues from getting ripped off the way you were once ripped off, it can be hard to know how to do that. The union makes it possible for Simon to take that hard-won knowledge of direct and illegal exploitation and use it to help thousands of people he's never met - not just by giving them the knowledge to negotiate better deals for themselves, but by giving that knowledge, and the power of his voice, to the union - which has the tools and the power to negotiate on behalf of ALL of them.

It's sometimes hard to see what unions do for people who aren't factory workers. This is what they do.

Thank you for this, schadenfrau.
posted by kristi at 10:25 AM on April 7, 2019 [43 favorites]

In short: blatant breach of fiduciary responsibility... Surprised it hasn't attracted outright lawsuits, if not federal scrutiny yet.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:25 AM on April 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

When I purchased a condo in Texas a few years back, we bid on a condo that was represented by the same firm as our realtor. The realtors couldn't discuss the deal outside of official, on paper bids, because that's the law. If you have less morals than Texas realtors, you're very much on the wrong side being fair.
posted by lownote at 10:41 AM on April 7, 2019 [22 favorites]

god bless David Simon.
posted by nevercalm at 10:45 AM on April 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

In short: blatant breach of fiduciary responsibility... Surprised it hasn't attracted outright lawsuits, if not federal scrutiny yet.

I think in many cases, the issue is that agents hold themselves out as having fiduciary of quasi-fiduciary responsibilities and then set things up legally so that they don't. Note the crucial title-quote, "I'm not a lawyer, I'm an agent".
posted by atrazine at 11:42 AM on April 7, 2019

Amy Berg (@bergopolis) has had some clear, easy to follow tweets on this. It's appalling. I know shady business practices are standard in Hollywood, but I'm surprised no one has sued. I guess then you'd get blackballed. What a cesspool.
posted by Mavri at 11:56 AM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

This isn't totally unlike either the studio system of Bad Old Hollywood, or IIRC a similar set of interlocking centralizations of profit in Tin Pan Alley, is it? So, recurrent problem, recurrent set of answers (starting with organization but probably not ending there!)

Are the streaming producers any different? Do the countries that subsidize local content have better systems?
posted by clew at 11:57 AM on April 7, 2019

There was a recent episode of Keep It where Angelina Burnett broke down why the vote was happening. (This episode was before the vote took place.)

The thing that stuck with me: most TV shows have a line-item in the budget just to pay the agencies, right off the top. Why? No reason, other than these package deals. That money could be used to hire other staff or make the show better in a thousand different ways, but it's just straight graft to the Big Four.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:14 PM on April 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

There was a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable where Jennifer Chastain described her agent calling her and asking which male lead was cast so they could negotiate her much lower salary though she was the female lead. I thought, "what kind of shitty agent does she have?". The salary was like orders of magnitude less. It makes sense if they are bundling all the talent.

The agencies are not just going to start sweating the writers but possibly the actors, too. There was a producers roundtable which made an oblique reference to an old style agent who made things happen for his clients, which implies how modern agents don't.
posted by jadepearl at 3:00 PM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here's a 4 minute succinct youtube video about the agency conflict of interest that I found helpful.
posted by ssmith at 3:42 PM on April 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

if television goes all wonky, this is why

Television has been all wonky for decades, and the current "golden age" can be attributed to a very small number of creative people among the massive amount of content being produced today. Sadly, once you eliminate the "Big 4" agencies, you'll still have to deal with the "Big 5" studios/network owners. And Netflix ain't gonna singlehandedly fix that.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:46 PM on April 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

This feels like we're going to describe this era as the packaging era, in the same way we refer to the studio era.
posted by Merus at 5:48 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

if television goes all wonky, this is why

IIRC, Reality Television was the result of the last strike, what was it? Ten years or so ago?
posted by BWA at 6:15 AM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Was coming here to post that! I’m really wondering what comes next. I don’t know if the WGA can negotiate directly on behalf of its members, but in the meantime the agents are still representing actors, directors, etc — some of whom are also writers — and they will still be packaging those elements, and they’ll still be cutting those deals with studios. And none of this will effect the big showrunner names who are working under enormous overall deals at various places. (Some of which were allegedly negotiated in anticipation of this situation.)

I don’t know if the WGA will have the leverage to change the system on their own or if this will require solidarity between the various guilds, but I don’t think I would want to count on solidarity from SAG or any of the others. It seems like maybe, hopefully, the WGA will carve out its own system within a system, since agents havent been doing shit for them anyway? But as long as agencies have the actors and the directors, idk that there will be any kind of systemic change.

OTOH it’s early days. And the writers appear to be sticking together. Which is heartening af.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:48 AM on April 14, 2019

This article talks about the role of private equity firms in talent agencies, which is an aspect I hadn't seen talked about before.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 11:44 AM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

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