WGA’s Epic Two-Year Battle With Major Talent Agencies Set Stage For Showdown With Studios Over New Contract

As the Writers Guild of America’s negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is about to enter the final week before their contract expires, both sides are hopeful it won’t take a strike to get a deal done. But the WGA’s long battle with the talent agencies showed it can reach agreements with even the most intractable of mega-companies.

Four years ago today, on April 22, 2019, more than 7,000 WGA members fired their agents en masse – a show of solidarity at the start of the guild’s historic two-year campaign to reshape the talent agency business that still is playing out today, emboldening the guild in its ongoing negotiations with the studios for a new film and TV contract.

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Five days before the mass firings, the WGA filed a lawsuit against the Big Three agencies that sought to establish that packaging – in which the major talent agencies were paid fees by production companies to package the creative elements of their projects – are illegal under California and federal law.

Three of the eight named plaintiffs in the case – Meredith Stiehm, Ashley Gable and Derik A. Hughes – now serve as members of the WGA’s contract negotiating committee, with Stiehm being elected president of the WGA West six months after the last of the major agencies finally agreed to give up packaging fees in February 2021.

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Six months later, in the run-up to the WGA West’s officer and board elections, Stiehm and her running mates, Betsy Thomas and Michele Mulroney – who also serve on the 2023 contract negotiating committee – cited the solidarity the membership demonstrated in the agency battle as a unifying force that would pay dividends in the current contract negotiations for a new minimum basic agreement. 

Writing about the conclusion of the agency fight in her official campaign statement, Stiehm said: “We secured this victory with everyone watching. We now have tremendous momentum as we approach the MBA in 2023. The companies should be on notice that we will bring that same strength and resolve to our negotiations with them.”

Thomas, who co-chaired the 2020 contract negotiating committee and served on the agency negotiating committee, said in her 2021 campaign statement for secretary-treasurer that the WGA’s 2020 contract talks – which were conducted during the early days of the pandemic shutdown – and the guild’s victory over the major talent agencies “have given our union a duly earned reputation for being smart, tenacious, and, frankly, kick ass. We are to be taken seriously and feared – and heading into 2023, we need to be.”

Mulroney, who co-chaired the 2020 contract negotiating committee and also was a member of the agency negotiating committee, wrote in her campaign statement that she would apply that experience “to help deliver a successful 2023 MBA campaign.”

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“I had a front-row seat at the negotiations and observed firsthand the kinds of tactics employed by the AMPTP,” she wrote of the 2020 negotiations. Looking ahead to the current contract negotiations, she wrote: “We know what we’re up against: mega-mergers, the convergence of theatrical and SVOD, dwindling back-ends, shorter seasons, the rise of the TV mini-room, an assault on TV producing fees, and the never-ending epidemic of free work.”

All of which are now major issues that the guild has brought to the bargaining table in its ongoing negotiations with the AMPTP.

Gable, who served as a strike captain during the guild’s 100-day strike of 2007-08, wrote in her campaign for re-election to the guild’s board last year that “The agency campaign showed the immense strength of writers’ collective power. I believe that power was crucial in giving us what leverage we had in the 2020 MBA negotiation.”

Noting that when she first ran for the board in 2018, Gable wrote that “two major concerns were the then-upcoming agency campaign and the 2020 MBA negotiation. I worked my behind off on the agency campaign, and I am proud of our win. But the MBA negotiation, which was going to be so important, ended up being circumscribed by the pandemic and our subsequent inability to mount a credible strike threat. Although what we were able to gain from the companies was substantial given the circumstances (paid parental leave!), it turns out that our most critical issues were left unaddressed until next year’s negotiation.”

Two other members of the current negotiating committee – Hughes and Eric Haywood – also stressed the importance of the agency campaign in relation to the current contract negotiations in their runs for reelection to the WGA West board of directors last year.

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“In the upcoming MBA negotiations,” Haywood wrote in his campaign statement, “we can’t afford to hope that the multi-million-dollar corporations that produce and distribute TV shows and movies will suddenly come to their senses, realize they have ‘enough’ money in their bank accounts, and share the wealth with writers out of the goodness of their hearts. To the contrary, we should expect absolutely no gains for which we aren’t prepared to fight tooth and nail. Hopefully, this won’t require a strike, but if the success of the agency campaign has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish with a unified membership that empowers its leadership to show no fear at the negotiating table.”

And Hughes wrote in his campaign statement: “We took on and won an agency campaign, we’ve negotiated an MBA in the middle of a pandemic that created meaningful gains for writers. But even though the 2020 MBA negotiation was considered a success during very trying times, there were multiple important issues that were taken off the table/ left unaddressed until the 2023 negotiations.”

Firing their agents four years ago showed that writers were willing to sacrifice for what they saw as the greater good. Voting by nearly 98% last week to authorize a strike shows they’re willing to do it again as contract talks now enter the final days ahead of the May 1 expiration of the WGA’s current contract.

But the agency campaign also showed that the guild is willing to compromise. After the last agency (WME) fell in line, the agencies were given more than a year to wind down their packaging of WGA-covered projects. And the guild even compromised its demand that franchised agencies get out of the business of owning production entities, allowing franchised agencies and their owners to own up to a 20% stake in a production or distribution entity. 

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And while packaging and agency ownership of production entities got most of the press coverage during the guild’s two-year battle with the major agencies, another key component of the deal was “information sharing,” which required agencies to provide the guild with invoices, deal memos, contracts and statements of compensation and agent commissions.

“Information sharing is one of the three pillars of our agency campaign,” the guild said in a recap of the gains it made with the agencies. “Information sharing is essential to advancing the interests of writers, both as individuals and collectively. Agency-provided information will allow the guild, in an unprecedented way, to identify and assess industry trends in writer employment, which will aid the guild in negotiating the MBA and provide writers and their representatives with important over-scale compensation information.”

The WGA negotiates minimum pay rates for writers, known as “scale,” but agents negotiate over-scale for their clients, and the information that the agencies have been sharing is now helping the guild make its case at the bargaining table with the studios that more writers at every pay scale are now work at MBA minimum than a decade ago.

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“In the 2013-14 season, 33% of all TV series writers were paid minimum; now half are working at minimum,” Charles Slocum, assistant executive director at the WGA West, told Deadline recently. “Increasing numbers of seasoned writers, including showrunners, are now paid no over-scale premium for their years of experience. Median weekly writer-producer pay has declined 4% over the last decade. Adjusting for inflation, the decline is 23%.”

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