A Quiet Showdown Between Writers and Agents

Yule Caise

by Tatiana Blackington James

You won’t see picket lines or placards, chanting protesters or drivers honking in support, but labor strife is back in town. This time, it isn’t the networks or studios that Hollywood writers are targeting but their own representatives. The biggest moment of drama came last Friday, when The Writers Guild of America sent a directive to its members: fire your agents at midnight.

According to the WGA’s member website, only about fifty agencies – many of them one-person shops – had signed on to the Guild’s Code of Conduct by the April 12 deadline. Negotiations with the “Big Four” agencies – Creative Artists Agency, ICM Partners, William Morris Endeavor and United Talent Agency – broke down. The most contentious issue is packaging, the practice of agencies attaching several of their clients to a project – a writer, director and an actor for example — presenting them as a package to buyers, and collecting substantial fees for the service. Writers say this leads to self-dealing and a lack of transparency.

Santa Monica screen and TV writer Yule Caise returned Saturday from Nice and to find the Guild’s specific instructions for how to deal with his agent.

“It was kind of a scary e-mail,” he admitted, but said he complied.

Caise was one of the 93.5% of members who voted for the Code of Conduct.

“I was hoping my agent was going to sign,” he said, “because they’re not one of the Big Four.”

Smaller agencies usually don’t have the wherewithal to package and in theory focus more on getting individual clients work, something his agents touted while wooing him.

The problem writers face, he said, is that, “agents aren’t really in the business anymore of actual agenting. They’re in the business of deal-making and doing things that can make the agency larger amounts of money … You really never know if your agent’s working on your behalf.”

It’s one of the reasons Caise started his own company, Behind the Billboard, and sought work internationally. The trip to Nice was to attend MIPTV, the International Market for Content Development and Distribution. Other countries do certain things better, he said. For example, foreign agents aren’t such fierce gatekeepers to the top actors.

“It’s all based on personal relationships.”

Santa Monica writer and producer Stephen Nathan said he loves his agent of almost 30 years.

“She’s been loyal, understanding, compassionate and dedicated. But…I have to stand with my union.”

A show-biz veteran who began his TV career with “Laverne & Shirley” and wrote for a slew of hit shows including “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Nathan rattled off a few of the WGA’s accomplishments: “fantastic health care, an excellent pension as well as residuals and many other protections…I fervently believe that without unions labor suffers. Look at the rest of the country where unions have been crushed. Packaging has always been a questionable practice. It’s time to work out a fair compromise that works for both sides.”

Writer Eric Daniel of Culver City didn’t have to fire his agent because he had already learned to do without one, relying on his manager and his lawyer instead.

“I’ve been with agencies, and that was fine when things were big and moving fast, but just like everybody says, when things slow down, you fall down the totem pole a little bit.”

Early in his career, Daniel, who won the WGA’s Humanitas Prize for his Disney film, “Let it Shine,” wrote and sold “a big script, with Will Smith attached.” But the film was never made and after a while, Daniel found it harder to get his agent’s attention. He jumped from one Big Four to another, but the new agent pressured him to take a job on a TV show he didn’t particularly like.

“And I honestly thought it was kind of a forced ‘diversity hire.’” Daniel, who also voted to adopt the Code of Conduct, is African-American.

“I haven’t gone back to agencies until recently. Ironically, I was working on my first TV project and started meeting with agents, and it’s interesting what’s going on now because their first perspective was to start packaging.”

A longtime agent at one of the Big Four, who asked that his name not be used, had a different take on the impasse.

“There are compelling arguments on both sides,” he said, “but what it comes down to is there’s a lot of chaos in the industry at the moment — the disruption of conglomerates, streaming.” Agents, he insists, are still writers’ closest allies.

On Sunday, he said that a handful, but by no means all of his clients in the WGA had given him the union-drafted message, and he accused the Guild leaders of brinkmanship.

“It really has not been a negotiation,” he said, but thinks the dispute will ultimately be resolved.

Daniel remains firmly behind the union’s tough stance.

“It’s a wake-up call,” he said. “It’s kind of like an abusive relationship, when the guy or whoever it is doesn’t realize they’ve been abusive and then they realize, ‘Wow, they’re willing to let me go.’”

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