by David Robb
March 11, 2019 2:10pm
The WGA has released another batch of horror stories its members are sharing about being screwed over by their agents because of packaging deals. “My agent tried to talk me out of taking a job as a writer on a show that is now on lists of all-time greatest TV shows because it wasn’t packaged by them,” said one of the disgruntled writers. The guild will resume negotiations tomorrow with the Association of Talent agents for a new franchise agreement.
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“I was on my way to a meeting with a network executive to pitch a show,” said another angry writer. “A ‘mere formality,’ the exec said, as he was a friend who had told me over dinner a few weeks earlier to ‘Just come in and tell it to my people and we’ll have you writing in a week.’ During my drive, I get a call from my agent who says, ‘Turn around. I canceled the meeting.’ ‘Why?’ I ask.” The agent replied: “They won’t make a packaging deal with us.”
Because of stories like these, the WGA is demanding an end to ban packaging fees and agency production deals with related entities. If a new agreement isn’t reached with the ATA by April 6, the guild says it’s prepared to order its members to fire their agents en mass who refuse to sign the Code. Guild members are expected to approve the new Code at the end of the month – just days before the deadline.
To bolster its position at the bargaining table, the WGA has been firing up its members with tales of duplicity, double-dealing and conflicts of interest on the part of agents. The guild released a similar collection of complaints last month.
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“After a month of shopping for an overall deal, meeting with half a dozen companies, my partner and I signed a contract with a studio that our agent told us had made the highest offer,” said another writer. “That weekend the head of a competing studio – one where we actually had a series on the air – called to ask how negotiations were going. When we told him we had already signed our next overall deal, he was furious! He offered a significantly better deal on the spot, then asked, ‘Is this about the package?’ It was the first time we’d ever heard the term. His studio had refused to pay a package on our overall deal, so the agent had sold us into a multi-year deal to the second-highest bidder. The agent left the country for a month to avoid us. We changed agencies. The new and old agencies now split the package on the series we created out in the overall deal.”
“My agency has a full package on a show I created,” said another. “They did nothing to package the show and never asked me or informed me they were taking a package. Per the deal they make a percentage paid out of the budget which comes out to about $50k/ episode. They also have 10 points of backend – something they never mentioned to me while negotiating to give away my points to other producers and cast. If I were to ever leave my show (or get fired) I would make $5k/ episode for creating the show but my agents would continue to make $50k/ episode for as long as the series runs. That’s right: If I leave my show for any reason my agents continue to make their full fee in perpetuity. A deal I do NOT have. I find this to be incredibly unethical and grossly unfair. And I’m pretty sure every writer whose agent took a package on their show has the exact same deal.”
“Three years ago,” another writer said, “I was staffed as a Story Editor on a network show packaged by my Big 4 agency. I had secured the interview and job all on my own without my agent’s help. When the studio’s first offer came in at minimum, my agent told me to take it. My manager was furious and called my agent to tell him that it was a first offer and only a starting point for negotiations. After that my agent negotiated a very modest bump. That was when I realized that staffing on a show packaged by your own agency doesn’t save you 10%; it costs you everything you should be getting in a hard fought negotiation. Just one simple bump in a promotion timetable can far outweigh what you save on commissions. And when you compare what those negotiated bumps add up to compounded over time, there is no comparison.”
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“Back in the mid-90s I was a client at a Big Four agency,” said another writer. “They rushed me into a packaged show at Warner Bros., knowing that I was going to get an offer from Disney to do a much better, but non-packaged show, within a day. But when I got the offer from Disney, my agent told me, ‘It’s too late, you’ve committed.’ And they wouldn’t help me get out of the package. It hurt me severely, both emotionally and professionally. Not worth the savings of the 10% at all.”
“Call this a Tale of Two Writers,” said another. “On my first show, I started with another writer and we rose up the ranks together as staff writers for two seasons, finally making it to the Story Editor level for season 3, but the show was cancelled. My friend got a job on another show the next staffing season through a ton of their own hard work, but the show was packaged by their agency. The job offer was to go back to staff writer level for yet ANOTHER season, and my friend’s agent let them take that deal. Meanwhile, I struggled to find work for two staffing seasons, but when I finally did, it was on a show my agency did not package. My agent argued that my experience level merited a double bump—and I got it. I’m now at the same level as my friend, even though they worked two whole seasons that I did not. It just goes to show: I’m better off at my smaller agency that doesn’t package, because my agent’s interest is directly tied to mine.”
“A few years ago, at the start of staffing season, I presented my agent with a long list of shows I would consider staffing or running, ranked according to preference.” Said another. “I expressly requested he not put me up for a specific show (a guaranteed resume-killer) except as a last resort. Days later my agent brought the “exciting news” that this least-preferred show wanted me as a showrunner. Not a single other show had been put forward as an option. Why? The show in question – packaged by my agency – was on the bubble and in need of a network-approved showrunner to get a pickup. To save their package fee (which included a substantial back-end) my agency ignored my wishes – and my long-term career interests – and slotted me where it would benefit them.”
You can read all of the latest batch of complaints from WGA members here.
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