The Writers Guild of America says more than 7000 writers have fired their agents. But talent agencies aren’t backing down. While heavy hitters like Shonda Rhimes or Stephen King won’t have issues finding work without their agents, it’s a different game for most other writers.
Mark Rizzo, a writer for film and television, tells Press Play that writers’ salaries have been flat and declining over the past several years, and the guild is attributing that to packaging fees. That’s what the standoff is over.
He explains, “When a writer sells a show to a network or a studio, and the agency packages multiple pieces of talent with that show (the writer, the director, an actor), what they do is they say, ‘Hey writer, great news, we will waive your 10 percent commission (the traditional way that we pay our agents), and we're going to do this thing called a packaging fee.’ And that packaging fee is negotiated with the studio, who is our employer. So basically, it takes the incentive away from the agents to negotiate the best salary possible for us.”
Rizzo says many of the writers left their agents and are waiting for them to sign a code of conduct, so they could work together again without conflicts of interest.
Finding work without agents
Jeane Wong, an entry-level staff writer and script coordinator for the CW show “Arrow,” doesn’t have an agent anymore. She says that change doesn’t make a huge difference because at the lower level, especially for a woman of color, she’s doing much of her own networking and hustling. She can land jobs on her own.
But she credits agents and her manager for being huge advocates of her career. Now it’s just about everyone realigning their goals, she says.
Rizzo had the same agent for 15 years, and when he signed the letter leaving her, he addressed it to Creative Artist Agency, rather than writing her name. He’s still friends with his agent, but it’s a little awkward right now, he admits.
Rizzo points out that the Writers Guild has established a database for writers to connect with each other and show runners.
“Just to get into this career, you have to hustle. And I don't think anyone lost that muscle. And if anything, we’re kind of improving on that, and hustling more and helping each other out,” Rizzo says.
What happens if this standoff drags on for months, and showrunners or other writers stick with who they know, rather than hire new writers? And so the same people get hired over and over again?
Wong doubts such a scene will happen. “Obviously people will hire who they want to hire. But I think the way things are opening up right now, I feel like there’s a big possibility for a shakeup, and for maybe writers that haven't worked in a while to get back in,” she says.
Has anyone been negatively affected by this standoff?
Rizzo says he’s a middle class mid-career writer, and he’s talked to many of his friends, and they’re all working. "He has one friend who’s just starting her career and isn’t working right now, but he believes she’ll be okay because she’s hustling and has many people supporting her.
The only negativity Wong has noticed is what she calls pettiness on an agency’s part. She describes it as “an agency that did not rep me, but was repping someone else on a project I'm attached to, and did not want to help set up a meeting or anything, or was just like, ‘We would rather work with a non-WGA writer right now.’ ”
But Wong says she understands there are sacrifices beyond her control, and she’s grateful she can talk directly to creatives about working together.
“I think everyone's feeling more empowered to reach out and communicate with producers, studio executives, people with whom they have preexisting relationships, and other writers,” Rizzo adds.
He says one of the great things about writing for film and television is that it's wildly collaborative. “Writing itself is a very lonely thing. But writers rooms and the community of writers out here, there's nothing else quite like it. And so you know we're all kind of in this together and helping each other.”
Note: KCRW contacted agents and agencies to comment, and they refused, declined, or said they weren’t available.
-- Written by Amy Ta, produced by Caitlin Plummer