Now it gets interesting.
Negotiations between Hollywood writers and agencies over an expiring agreement ended Friday not with a deal, as some had hoped, but with a fusillade of accusations.
And so in an unprecedented turn of events, the writers were asked by their guild to fire their agents. A number of prominent ones have already said they will.
“Notify your agency in a written form letter that they cannot represent you until they sign the Code of Conduct,” the Writers Guild of America, or WGA, told its members Friday evening, referring to a document banning agents from collecting packaging fees.
“Despite our best efforts, today’s outcome was driven by the Guild’s predetermined course for chaos,” the Association of Talent Agents, or ATA, said in its own statement. The ATA represents a variety of agencies but especially the “Big Four” of WME, CAA, ICM and UTA.
Writers such as Daniel Chun (“The Simpsons”), Chrissy Pietrosh (“Cougartown”), Nancy Kiu (“Castle”), David Simon (“The Wire”) and Jay Kogen (“Frasier”) already have gone public with the firings of their agents.
“I’ve had the same agent for almost 20 years. I owe him a lot. But I owe the writers who came before me and the ones who are still to come, so much more,” Pietrosh wrote.
The sides have been unable to come to terms on a so-called franchise agreement, which grants agents the power to represent writers. The previous agreement expired last weekend; the WGA’s directive to its members for mass firings comes after a week of negotiating under a provisional extension.
“We agreed to the extension in the hope the agencies were serious about realigning their interests with ours,” David Goodman, president of WGA West, said in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday. “But their proposals didn’t address the inherent conflict of interest. It became clear that the extension was not productive, not leading to a solution we could bring to members.”
The ATA’s executive director, Karen Stuart, was not available for comment, a spokeswoman said.
At the dispute’s center are packaging fees, a key part of agency revenue. Those fees come from studios, which pay a percentage of a show’s budget and profits to agencies that put together clients on a project. Writers say they create a conflict of interest that harms writers and their salaries. Agents say the fees benefit all parties.
The labor strife comes at a moment when the market for content is high thanks to new players from Silicon Valley. But the WGA contends its members are not cut in on profits proportionally.
The code, which has been viewed by The Post, requires that “no agent shall accept any money or thing of value from the employer of a Writer,” essentially prohibiting packaging fees, which come from studios. It also requires that agencies divest from burgeoning production studios, another point of conflict.
After negotiations between WGA and ATA leaders carried on throughout the week, the ATA returned Thursday with a proposal that would allow packaging fees to be shared. However, it limited the sharing only to “back end” profits -- not upfront fees but the money from a show that reaches profitability. (Many do not.)
The WGA further said that even the back-end agreement would only give 0.8 percent to writers, a number it found objectionably low. “That they still wanted to keep 99 percent of back end shows they are not really serious” about coming to an agreement, Goodman said.
Negotiations continued Friday until about 3 p.m. Pacific time, after which the two sides left without an agreement. Later on Friday, the WGA made available to members a customizable letter that writers could send agents.
“Under WGA rules I can no longer be represented by you for my covered writing services,” it reads. “Once your agency is again in good standing with the Writers Guild we can reestablish our relationship.”
Goodman hailed the “solidarity of our membership, of people saying unless a new code of conduct is signed, you can’t represent me anymore.”
The ATA, however, painted the WGA as intransigent and working against the interests of its members. A note released to the media late Friday noted that “The WGA leadership today declared a pathway for compromise doesn’t exist.”
The group said the code of conduct “will hurt all artists, delivering an especially painful blow to mid-level and emerging writers, while dictating how agencies of all sizes should function.”
No new talks are scheduled.
Because there has never been a mass firing of agents in modern Hollywood, the consequences of the standoff are unclear.
Unlike the writers’ strike against the producers in 2007-2008, writers will continue to work. But the staffing of existing shows and the setting up of new ones are often handled by agents, which means existing shows could see a slowdown in output while new series could reach the air more slowly.
The WGA dismissed that possibility.
“There will be no slowdown,” Goodman said, adding that no picketing has been planned because writers will continue work as usual on Monday.
“New shows need to be written and created by writers. Business will not slow down because of this, not one iota,” he said.
Some in Hollywood remain skeptical though, saying agents represent an important part of the process and that without them writers will not be hired as quickly.
The WGA has empowered showrunners to staff shows and also has authorized lawyers and managers to negotiate as agents would.
But the ATA’s lawyers disputed the legality of that authorization.
“The WGA cannot delegate authority it does not have,” the letter, from the firm of Latham & Watkins, said in a message to WGA leaders. It cited California and New York laws requiring that those who act as agents first procure a license. The WGA responded that it stood by its position and had that authority under federal law.
A number of small agencies have said they will sign the code. But mid-level agencies — the kind that could attract a mass migration of Hollywood writers — have so far stood in solidarity with the ATA.
It’s possible some WGA members could take a demoted status at the guild and refuse to fire their agents, though historically few have done so.
That leaves few options, insiders say. With no new negotiations, the odds of lawsuits -- which both sides allow is possible -- have increased. In the meantime, many in the entertainment business continue to debate the issue – and, as of Saturday, not make deals with agents.