Unions, once a major force in the U.S. economy, have declined steadily over the past 30 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2018 only 10.5% of American workers were union members - the lowest rate of membership since the 1980s.
But while unions have been weakened in many industries, they’re still strong in others, such as the movie business and television. And now Hollywood writers are boldly trying to write a new script for their collective future. The Writers Guild of America is fighting the powerhouse talent agencies of Hollywood, charging in a civil lawsuit that the agencies are trying to rewrite the longstanding rules of representation.
At the center of the dispute is the escalating practice of agencies “packaging” projects -- bundling a project with multiple talents from an agency to sell a TV show or movie. Writers in the WGA contend that packaging hurts their pay, and thousands have fired their agents -- upon the direction of the WGA. Meredith Jordan, who chronicled the complete making of Last Vegas in her book, Below The Line: Anatomy of a Successful Movie, says unions are valued by Hollywood but the WGA’s mettle will be put to the test.
“The conflict has the potential to impact the industry even more than the 2007 writer’s strike, which they’re still talking about,” Jordan says. “The union argues the big agencies can’t be principals in the deals and adequately represent the interests of writers. There’s a strong case to be made they’re right, given writers’ salaries and fees have not appreciably risen since 1999 -- while the agencies have seen enormous growth in revenue and profit.”
Jordan outlines the dispute - how it got to this point and where it could be headed:
What is the Artists’ Managers Basic Agreement (AMBA)? The agreement between the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) and the WGA regulates how agents represent writers. It says agents can charge 10 percent of a writers’ earnings. It hadn’t been changed since 1976.
What happened? The WGA sought to renegotiate the AMBA. “The union asserted the most powerful agencies, CAA, WME, UTA, and ICM, were hampering writers’ careers by the practice of packaging,” Jordan says. “Packaging has been around a long time, but it was the rise of packaging fees — and the inequity --- that prompted the request." It led to a showdown between WGA and agents and negotiations ultimately failed.
Where we are now. In mid-April WGA said its members could only work with agents who agreed to a code of conduct that prohibits packaging. That has lead to writers firing thousands of agents.
How the impasse could affect Hollywood short-term. “It’s a huge shake-up, just as TV shows for this fall are staffing up. There isn’t a strike on the table but they are on their own navigating a competitive job climate for about 500 scripted series, or quickly finding other reps,” Jordan says.
Long-term implications of the drama. “With the WGA sticking to its guns, a major realignment of the writers-agents relationship is under way,” Jordan says. The WGA has sued the agencies alleging antitrust and racketeering laws have been violated. “Many writers have gone to smaller agencies content to take the 10 percent commission,” Jordan says. “If somehow, miraculously, a new deal is struck, the agencies would need to bring a lot more to the table for writers than they did the first time.”
“Writing professionals drive much of the entertainment we consume on TV and in the movies,” Jordan says. “They feel they’re being diminished by the big agencies, who are influenced by Wall Street. But don’t underestimate the power of the writers’ union.”
About Meredith Jordan
Meredith Jordan (http://www.belowthelinebook.com) is the author of Below The Line: Anatomy of a Successful Movie. Jordan, who had the rare experience of being an embedded journalist for an entire Hollywood feature, chronicled the behind-the-scenes happenings in the making of Last Vegas. An award-winning reporter, Jordan worked for East Coast news organizations for 25 years, including Dow Jones & Co., Cox Communications and National Geographic.