The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 393 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is off in London finishing up the sound mix for Chernobyl. So this was originally going to be a repeat episode but a lot has happened this past week with the agency agreement. So instead I wanted to bring on two writers to help us make sense of it all.
First, Chris Keyser is a writer and showrunner whose credits include Party of Five, Tyrant, and The Last Tycoon. He’s also a two-time former WGA president and frequently leads the MBA negotiating committee. Along with David Shore and Meredith Stiehm he’s leading the negotiating committee on the ongoing talks with the agencies. Welcome back, Chris.
Chris Keyser: Thanks John.
John: Chris, it’s so good to have you back. Even more exciting we have Angelina Burnett. She is a television writer who has worked on The Americans, Hannibal, Genius, and Halt and Catch Fire. She’s on the WGA board of directors and the negotiating committee. Welcome Angelina.
Angelina Burnett: I’m so happy to be here, John. Thank you for having me.
John: So over the last year I have watched you in wonder as you’ve organized people and projects and things in ways that I just didn’t know were possible. So, your background is in political organizing. You’ve done this before?
Angelina: I have. And in fact it’s been so interesting to go through this struggle in leadership because I was an assistant in the 2007 strike and lost my job. And I had said when I saw Barack Obama in 2004 give his DNC speech that when he ran for president I was going to quit my job and work for him. But when he announced he was running I had this assistant job that I was sure was going to turn into a staff job. And as we all know when that comes and you feel like it’s right at your fingertips I just couldn’t quit. Well, fortunately the WGA handled that for me. I lost my job and I started volunteering about 100 hours a week on the primary campaign. And then I was hired to move to Nevada and run the border state program for the general. And I went through this really intense training program with this man named Marshall Ganz who was trained in organizing with the United Farmworkers back in the ‘60s.
And so I’ve spent the last ten years of my life balancing my writing career and political organizing career. And it’s been very thrilling to be in this challenge with folks and to get to bring all those skills to bear. So it feels really good to be of service with that background.
John: When I see Angelina Burnett yield a shared Google sheet to organize some things I’m just like, wow, we’re in the hands of a master here.
Angelina: [laughs] I’m honored. Thank you.
John: The other thing I want to call out, because you’d said this in a meeting and it never occurred to me before, and I’ve really watched myself since is we need to stop saying “baby writers.”
Angelina: Yes. Thank you for bringing that up. Thank you.
John: Because sometimes we’ll say, and we mean it in the nicest way, baby writers like newer, younger writers, but tell me why we should not say that.
Angelina: Well, first of all they’re grownups. They’re grown humans. And second of all when the Weinstein thing happened and I was on the sexual harassment subcommittee which quickly sprawled into bullying and workplace harassment and just the general vibe of a writers’ room. And I believe that the language we use gives people permission to treat people certain ways. And so I think when you call someone a “baby writer” you’re infantilizing them and you’re sort of implicitly justifying demeaning behavior.
And so there is an incredible amount we have to do as a guild, as a community, to address this issues, but I think a very small thing all of us can do is just excise that phrase from our lexicon.
John: We’re not going to say that anymore.
Angelina: Thank you.
John: Before we get into the agency negotiation stuff, this week a big thing happened which was Fox and Disney became one thing. So Disney had announced its acquisition of Fox but this was the week it all kind of came together. And so on the film side it looks like the following pieces are going to stick around. So there’s 20th Century Fox, there’s Fox Family, Fox Searchlight, Fox Animation. It’s unclear which of those divisions are going to make theatrical films versus making stuff for the new Disney Plus Streaming. But yesterday as we’re recording this Fox 2000 it was announced is going away. And that really brought me down, because that was one of the first places I worked. And I loved that Fox 2000 was a label that you actually sort of knew what they made. They made films about issues and especially films with women in them. And Laura Ziskin was the original Fox 2000 chief. Elizabeth Gabler was great. I was really sad to see Fox 2000 go away.
Chris: Not good for writers. Not good for the audience.
John: No. I mean, and so all of those people are really smart and they’ll get to go to other places, but when there’s one less buyer out there.
John: Or in this case sort of six less buyers out there, it really hurts us.
Angelina: Yeah. These mergers are not good for us fundamentally. And, you know, I think back to ’94 which I’ve heard about when I started in the business and the vertical integration of networks and studios. And this is what we have to work against. And, you know, when we have power we have to use it. We didn’t have power here. But–
Chris: Not to bring us back to the conversation we’re going to get to eventually, but of course the agencies use that argument against us. They say, “Well, we have these affiliated studios. Isn’t that better for you? We’ve got more buyers.” And we say yes. We love all of those studios, we just don’t want them attached to agencies.
John: Yeah. I mean, if Disney were to buy WME that would not be good.
Angelina: That would be terrible.
John: It would be remarkably terrible. And yet I can imagine a different scenario with a different administration where Disney and Fox would not have been allowed to merge. I think that was a mistake and I think that’s going to hurt us in the long run.
Angelina: I do, too. And at the guild we do have a PAC. We do have a political action arm. And we did all we could with our limited power to try to push back against this. But this is what happened. You know, elections have consequences. And the Trump Justice Department, they were not going to be our ally on this. So we use the political power we have when we have it and we didn’t have it this time.
John: All right. To the marquee topic which is the agency negotiation. So, we are recording this on the Friday before a week where we’re going to have a bunch of big public meetings where people can come and talk to us about their thoughts on the agency agreement. Those meetings are Tuesday March 26 at the Beverly Hilton, 7:30pm. I won’t be there for that one, but I will be there for the next two, Wednesday March 27 at Sheraton Universal, 7:30pm, and Saturday March 31 at the Writers Guild, 10:20am. There are also east coast meetings, so we will get those up on the website as well. But we’re having those meetings because we’re about to start voting on something.
So the vote is to authorize the board and the WGA East Council to implement a code of conduct. So today we’ll talk a little bit about what the code of conduct is, why that might be a thing that comes to pass. Voting for that for members starts on Wednesday the 27 at 9pm, both Pacific time and East Coast time, so just ignore the time change in between there. It’s 9pm no matter which coast you’re on. And it goes through Sunday March 31 at 10am Eastern Time.
So big meetings coming up. A chance to sort of talk about what’s going on. But I asked people on Twitter to send in their questions and I thought we could knock out maybe twenty questions that people have right now about the agency agreement and I have two very smart people here who can answer those questions.
Angelina: Great. And actually before we launch into that I would love to say one thing. You know, occasionally I hear from folks that they feel that the vibe in those meetings is so guild positive and guild rah-rah that they don’t feel comfortable speaking up and sharing concerns. And I want to say at least from leadership’s perspective we want to hear concerns. We want this to be a place where people can voice dissent. This is a democratic union, warts and all, and we don’t ever want to make people feel like they can’t share their concerns. So, if you have concerns and you want to share them please come to these meetings and feel like you can speak up. Nobody is going to shout you down. We’re there to listen.
Chris: And even if it’s difficult to do that, and it may be difficult to do that in meetings where the majority feels like they’re on the other side, secret ballot. Vote your conscience and your heart. We don’t know who votes which way. And an honest vote from our membership tells us what to do.
Angelina: That’s right.
John: 100%. All right. Let’s get to these questions. So Marv Boogie writes, “Why did it take 42 years to renegotiate the ATA agreement?” Chris Keyser, why did it take this long? 42, 43 years. Why did we wait so long?
Chris: Well, it’s a complicated answer. I think it has mostly to do with the fact that the Writers Guild has a lot on its plate. Every three years we have to renegotiate the MBA. And that’s a thing that happens over the course of a couple months, but the preparation for it – and when I say the preparation, not just the preparation that has to be done by the staff and the negotiating committee, but the preparation to get the membership ready to think about that is long. It can be over a year.
When you think about what the cycle looks like when that happens and then you think about where the Writers Guild membership is, whether that membership is engaged enough to be called into action more than once in a three-year cycle. It has taken us a long time to get to the place where we could do that. I mean, to be honest with you I don’t know what might have happened earlier had we not had to strike in 2007 and 2008. That was absolutely necessary. And the benefits that we have reaped from our jurisdiction over the Internet I think are being felt by almost all writers today. I can’t remember what percentage of our income comes from that, but it has taken a little while to understand exactly why that was important. But it took a really great toll on the guild. There were people who were angry about it in the moment. There were people who suffered from the strike because strikes can be cruel things.
It took a lot of years for people to say we’re back in a place where we’re going to fight together in a place of unanimity. And I think the guild leadership after a lot of decades began to feel through 2017, the 2014 negotiations the guild was in a place where it could do that. We had the kind of staff that was prepared and so we saw this opening between 2017 and 2020 and thought we’d go for it.
It’s not that we didn’t care. It’s that it took a while for us to have a moment in time where we could do it. And then on the other side business has changed. The business has changed so that the agency business is now dominated by four agencies, small oligopoly. They have overwhelming percentage of the market share. And their control over that and packaging and the assessment of packaging fees had made this a question that we have to answer now. That’s thing two. Thing three. I probably should have identified it which is we are not going after packaging fees and other conflicts of interests just because we’re on a moral crusade. We’re going after those things because it has an economic impact on writers.
And it has been in the last decade that we’ve seen writers’ salaries plummet. So we’re in a very special, and I’m sorry for going on for a long time, but it matters to understand this, special moment in the business where, one, the studios who make our product because of the globalization of the marketplace, the accessibility of our product, their profits have doubled in the last ten years. They make $50+ billion every year. They’re doing really well.
The agencies, those big four agencies, because of the money, the influx of money from packaging fees they’re able to monetize that and their control over talent to get enormous influx of capital. So we know those agencies, indirectly we know this because their books are closed, they’re the recipients of billions of dollars in investment and those investors are reaping hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in profits. So agencies are doing well.
And at the same time writers’ salaries have gone down 23% in the last two years, double digits over the last decade. That is the contrary to the rules of economics. It ought not to happen that way and we had to look for a number of different causes for it. Some of them we’ve identified in our MBA negotiations. That’s why we negotiated, span a couple of years ago. And one of them is the fact that people who are supposed to be defending our above-scale income, the agencies, are failing in their jobs. So when you take the decline in writers’ salaries, the overwhelming control of the business that the agencies have, and a moment in time when the guild is powerful enough feels enough of a kind of common purpose to actually take on a battle like this that led us to this moment. That’s why.
Angelina: And I’d also say, this is my first term on the board. I’ve been a captain for ten years. And from my perspective, not having the sort of behind the scenes view that Chris does, this bubbled up from the membership. You know, I would go to membership meetings and it would come up unprompted. People would raise their hand and say what are we going to do about the agents.
And so the reality is this packaging money flowed in and then the private equity money flowed in. And then they stated these affiliate production arms. And now what we’re looking at is our agents being our bosses and I think writers started to feel the tension of that and the anxiety of what that future means. And they spoke up. And so while there were behind the scenes things happening as we investigate this, the membership was speaking very clearly about it as a problem and, again, we’re a democratic institution. We respond to the membership.
Chris: That’s really true. I mean, I was president for two terms as you said and we had a lot of membership meetings. And almost everything we’ve done over the last – and John you know this because you’ve been involved – almost everything that we’ve done from questions of Span which is how long writers need to work for a given episode, or issues of options and exclusivity which means how long writers are held without being paid in between seasons of shows, or forbidden to work on something else. All of that came from the membership. Every one of these questions came from outreach meetings in which members began to say here’s what’s affecting our bottom line.
John: Yeah. I would say the reason why it took 42 years for this to get renegotiated is as a person who is relatively well informed about the WGA business but was not on the board I didn’t even understand we had a relationship with the agents. I would complain about the agencies but I didn’t know that the WGA actually had a negotiated relationship with the agencies.
Chris: The AMBA. Yeah.
John: When writers would write in with questions and problems and would talk about horror stories and I would say why is your agent letting that happen it never occurred to me that the WGA could actually step in and do something about that.
The second answer is they started producing. And that to me is the biggest why now. Because I look five years, ten years down the road, I don’t want to be working for my agent.
John: Jacqueline writes, “If we end up going down the route where we need to implement a code of conduct what happens the next day?”
Angelina: So we can’t say for sure right now, it’s going to depend on the strength of the vote. It’s going to depend on the factors on the ground. The board and negotiating committee will look at all the different factors and judge it accordingly, but we cannot pretend like there won’t be disruption if we ask the membership to walk away from their agents during staffing season. And we’ve really considered what we can do to mitigate that disruption. If the risk is worth the potential reward. And again we won’t be making that decision right now. We’ll make that decision when the vote comes in and we see how the agents respond. I mean, with everything we do they do something and we have to reorient our thinking.
But we have come to believe that by putting some programs in place and by frankly good organizing, good human-to-human community work that we can take care of each other and that we can mitigate the disruption and that we can get through a staffing season without agents. I mean, the membership has told us, 75% of our survey respondents go their last job without their agent. And that’s not to say that agents aren’t valuable. They do play a role. But the role they’re playing now is problematic and we have to adjust their power. We have to realign their incentives. And in order to do that we’re going to have to take a little time to see what life is like without them.
And speaking as someone who has always been very clear on her power, I think it might be a healthy thing for us to come together and take care of each other. And to reorient our understanding of writer’s position at the center of this business.
Chris: Can I add one other thing to that, to remember this which is the business is going to continue in some sense as it did before. Same number of shows that would have been picked up had we not done this are going to be picked up. The same number of people are going to be hired at the same levels. The same number of high-level writers and mid-level writers and low-level writers.
This is not a question of whether in the aftermath of an imposed code of conduct writers get work. It’s really a question of how that work is distributed. Whether the temporary change in access to that employment adversely affects some people in relation to others. And I don’t know if you want to talk about that at some point, but you’ve been working for months on programs to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
Angelina: Yes. And I should have started with the fact that everybody who has a job still goes to work. Like that’s the most important thing to remember. Nobody stops going to work.
Chris: And people who don’t have jobs, but who will be hired, still go to work.
Angelina: Yeah. There will still be 750 or so jobs in network staffing season and there will still be 1,500 people vying for those jobs and half of those people will get jobs. That’s what will happen.
John: Let’s talk about the people involved in getting those people their jobs. Because we talk about the agents as being a key force here, and they clearly are, but there’s also managers. There are studio bosses who have lists of the folks they want to – writers they want to work with. Networks have lists of people they want to work with again. Showrunners have experience with people. Showrunners talk to other showrunners about the people who are available now to be staffed on their shows. So, there’s a lot of communication happening that would happen regardless of the agencies.
Angelina: That’s right. And I think something that – I ran for the board for a number of reasons, but a big one was to address access for diverse populations, for women, people of color, folks with disabilities. All the folks who have had a traditionally difficult time getting into our business. I wanted to be in leadership to see what little changes I might be able to make to create space for that. And so as I look at this, as we all looked at this, what does a staffing season without agents look like? The true fear is that we’ll go back to the old boys’ network, which is how it works anyway by the way. But we’ve made very like small little tip-toe gains over the last few years in cracking the doors a little bit wider.
There have plenty of showrunners who started going to Twitter. Mike Schur hires off of Twitter. Julie Plec hires off of Twitter. They’ve been going around the gatekeepers to try to find interesting, different, unique voices to bring into their room. And so my personal feeling in approaching how do we solve the problem of staffing season without agents is how do we make sure the folks who already have a hard time getting in the door and who are now losing their advocate, how do we protect them? That’s been my number one priority.
And I will say on top of the things we’re doing as a guild, which Chris is reaching out to the showrunner community and asking them to step up and systematize the thing they’re doing anyway. Showrunners recommend to other showrunners. Staff writers reach out to people they worked for and had good experiences with and say will you please give me a recommendation. So we’re asking folks to do more of that.
Additionally, we’ve developed this submission system which I hope will continue forever. I hope we’ll roll it out this staffing season, showrunners will buy into it, and will get to keep using it. And it’s a really simple way for showrunners to ask exactly for what they’re looking for, those unique voices, the specific backgrounds, the philosophy degree, experience in law enforcement, whatever it is. And then allows the membership to submit themselves in a way that speaks to those exact needs and puts it into a really clean, simple, sortable, searchable database.
So the submissions don’t feel overwhelming. You can pick out of it exactly what you need. So those are the two sort of pieces that the guild can officially put in place.
But what I have found so inspiring, this goes back to my organizing experience, problems like this always have an organizing solution. And organizing solutions are people-based. And I have met so many incredible young African-American women who want to be a part of the solution. And we are empowering them. They don’t need us to tell them what to do. The sort of paternalistic notion that the experienced white writers need to swoop in and save these people, these folks are used to working twice as hard. They’re here because they’ve been working twice as hard. All we have to do is empower them a bit. They’ve already created a network.
This stuff is already happening. All they need is a little support and a little encouragement from the guild and we can help them get their arms around that community and make those connections. So there will be mixers. We’ll be getting showrunners with lower-level writers. And I think the combination of these sort of online tools and, again, the person-to-person organizing work, I think we can get our arms around this problem and really, really create some support.
Chris: Do you mind if I add on a couple of things to that?
Chris: Just to emphasize some stuff, because as you said it’s critical. And it’s a mistake we can’t make to allow—
Angelina: That’s right.
Chris: To allow people to fall through the cracks. Although it’s going to be a little chaotic, a little more chaotic than before. So a couple of things. First of all, we’re asking showrunners to say that you are essentially responsible for anyone who has been on your staffs the last five years. Not just the people you’ve known forever, but everybody. It is a thing showrunners do.
So unlike the old version of showrunners talk to showrunners and the same old people get hired, we’re talking about anybody in the guild who has been employed in the last five years. And that includes low-level writers, new writers, writers of color, women, all of them. They will have better advocates in a sense than their agents, because I don’t know about you but when I run a show I just get lists of people from agents with not much information.
But if I get a phone call from a showrunner who says I worked with this young woman, or older man, or whatever it is, and hear she’s excellent in a room and a good writer, that means a lot. So I think that system is going to work really well. The other thing is when you think about the people in the system who actually make sure writers are hired, agents are not one of those people. They are the intermediaries, but it’s the studios and the networks, the producers, and the writers. We hire ourselves in a sense.
So, if we are attentive to that. If the networks and studios pay attention not just to their general staffing grids, but to the diverse grids, and we hold their feet to the fire on that and we say you can’t come out of the staffing season with worse numbers. You can come out with better numbers because in fact in some ways we’re democratizing the system. I think then we’re going to be OK.
No agent has ever hired a single writer.
Angelina: That’s right.
Chris: Right? The people who are still in the system are the people who end up making offers to writers. And if we knock this staffing season out of the park we’re going to have a lot of power as a guild to set things right.
Angelina: That’s right. And I think – I just want to say one more thing to that. You know, agents open doors. And that’s the challenge we have right now is access. Agents open doors. And I’ve seen so many young writers, and I even felt it in myself as somebody who grew up in this business. I’m very privileged. I had a lot of doors already opened to me. And I still felt like I needed an agent to matter. And I needed an agent to get work.
I was very quickly disabused of that notion because I got my first job all by myself, and then I got my agent. But I think there are a lot of writers out there who really feel like they matter because of what agency they’re with. And the truth is, the thing we have to keep reminding ourselves, is we matter because we’re good writers. That’s where our power and value is. Agents open doors, we get ourselves the work. So the guild and our community, we’re going to come together and we’re going to make sure those doors open and then you’re going to have the opportunity as you always have to get yourself the job.
John: All right. Let’s do a quick one. Adam writes, “What do you think of the David Simon article?” This is an article we’ll link to. David Simon of The Wire wrote a long screed – I think a screed is a fair thing to say – about his experience in packaging. What did you think about it Angelina?
Angelina: I was a fan. I thought he did a really great job of making the problem clean and clear in a very entertaining way, considering this isn’t an entertaining problem. I was impressed that he was able to make it entertaining.
John: Chris Keyser, what did you think of the David Simon article?
Chris: I thought at the heart of it it was true. I know some people have an issue with the heightened rhetoric. It’s not a thing that you would have heard from your guild, but it’s a world in which people speak their minds and he spoke his pretty powerfully.
John: Yeah. I liked it, too, because everything that the three of us are saying has to have some messaging behind it. There has to be a purpose and we know what we’re trying to say. And everything that goes out of the guild has to be sort of vetted. Chris Keyser, you’ve written a bunch of pieces that are up on the website which we’ll link to about sort of my agent is not like that. You really talk through these things. But those are more diplomatic than David Simon’s article because they’re on the guild website.
We didn’t ask David Simon to write that. He just wrote that.
Angelina: He just did it.
John: And sometimes you need a bomb-thrower.
John: Kelly McNeal writes, “Is another strike eminent?”
Chris: Well, first of all, there’s no strike in this.
Angelina: This isn’t a strike.
Chris: We’re not striking. No one is going to lose a job over this. We’re just talking about a different way of having access to jobs briefly. Because we’re not anti-agent.
Angelina: Yeah. And then going back to our agents.
Chris: That’s right. We’d like to go back to our agents. As to what happens in 2020 no one can predict that.
Angelina: That’s right.
John: That’s the next thing. Tom writes, “Are you guys really negotiating or is this just running out the clock?” I can take that because I was in the negotiating room yesterday.
Angelina: Do it.
Chris: Tell us. What are we doing, John?
John: We’re really negotiating. We are really trying to get to a place where we can figure out an agreement together and figure out sort of what this all looks like. That’s not always a simple process. It’s not always a calm and quiet process. But, yeah, we’re really negotiating.
The other thing I would stress is that negotiating, you think about it just being that last deal-making phase where you’re haggling, you’re trading off stuff. But negotiating is also communicating with your members about what it is you want, advocating for your position, seeing how much strength you have around that position. That’s negotiations. And we’re doing that and you definitely see the agencies doing that.
Chris: Yes. I was going to say what do you think the agencies are doing when they accuse of not negotiating? They’re negotiating.
John: That’s negotiating.
Chris: That’s what they’re doing. I know and I think – I know this because it came out of the MBA negotiations that members don’t like the game part of it.
John: They don’t.
Chris: Because we’re really specific and we’re type A and we’re organized and we want things to be useful and based on reasonable arguments. So it drives our membership crazy. But the problem is it’s actually part of what is in some ways a bit of theater in this. That what happens outside the table as David Young says determines the shape of the table. And the shape of the table has everything to do with what you end up getting. So when they say they refuse to come back to the table and we won’t let them back until they say they’re going to compromise on everything and we say we’re not going to compromise on everything before we get back to the table. If you don’t want to hear that we won’t be coming back. And they say, “Fine, come back.” Well, that was a little victory for us.
Angelina: That’s right. And I’ll also say, you know, this goes back to my organizing training and why I think it’s so valuable in this context is this is about building and exercising power. Negotiations come down to who has more power. And all of this rhetoric, all of the organizing we do, the outreach we do, all of it is about building power. And the more power we can build the better deal we get. And I will say that David Young is a master at building power. And there may be times where a thing is said in the press in public that feels, that makes you personally uncomfortable because you like your agent and I totally understand that. But we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it built our power. And all of that is driving towards getting us the best possible deal with the least amount of pain. That’s what power gives us the opportunity to do. Get a great deal for minimal risk.
So, you guys want us to be building power. I promise.
John: Minhail writes, “If affiliate production arms present a clear conflict of interest why did a WGA board member at the new member orientation say it was ‘all good to sell stuff to them?’ This is after a member asked whether it was OK to pitch something to Endeavor Content.” So affiliate production arms we mean Endeavor Content, we mean Wiip, we mean the ones that are closely aligned with the agencies. So why would a board member say that it was OK to sell stuff to Endeavor Content?
Chris: Because it’s our philosophy that the action is collective and not individual. So we are not saying to any member of our guild change the way you behave. You don’t have to refuse a package on your show right now. You don’t have to stop selling to wherever you’re selling. When the time comes for the membership as a whole exercising the power that we have as a collective decide to change the world, then you’ll have to accommodate those rules. Until then, you play in the world that exists.
John: Yeah. I had a couple of phone calls this last week. So I’ve been emailing a bunch of people, including my cell phone, and so my phone will ring and it’s like, oh, who is this person. But I answer. And a couple of questions have been why are you so against Endeavor Content or Wiip and I got a great deal there, and I always stress that we are not against those. We want those to exist. We just don’t want them to be part of the agency. That’s the relationship. We want Endeavor Content to stay. We want WME to stay. We just want them to be separate companies so that everybody can compete fairly. I just don’t want to be working for my agent.
Chris: Right. Can I speak for one second to that question? Because a lot of people have said, “But I’ve gotten a really good deal at those places.” And this is the answer that I always like to give. First is that loss leaders are an old tactic. So a lot of the early deals are going to be really good. And by the way some people with enormous amount of power in the industry are going to end up getting good deals. But here’s the basic truth of it which is these studios, these affiliate studios, have to compete eventually in the marketplace against every other studio which means they’re not going to be doing that by giving some kind of sweetheart deal to their own clients.
In fact, when you take a look at some of the information that we released about the amount of money that’s being poured into these agencies that can only be repaid by studios that are very successful, you end up with this impossible to reconcile dilemma which is effectively those studios are operating. They’re operating as producers. They make money when they reduce their costs and they increase their revenue.
When they pay us more they increase their costs and reduce their revenue. And at some point something’s got to give. And the truth is the agency business is a much smaller part of this than a very, very successful studio. That’s why in 1962 MCA decided to become Universal because that’s where they were going to make their money. We don’t want to be in a business where effectively it’s an affiliated agency to an existing studio.
John: Chris, someone writes, “Could we forget about agents all together? Could we live in a world without agents?”
Angelina: I don’t know that we need to. I don’t know that that’s what the membership wants. I mean, could we? Possibly. But I think agents are valuable. I think they’re–
John: I think they serve an important function.
Angelina: I do. And I think their interests have to be aligned with ours. I mean, I think we need agents. I just think we need their power to be commensurate with their value.
John: I’ve had two agents over my entire career and what they’ve been great at is connecting me with people who I would not have otherwise met. Negotiating on my behalf. Really understanding what I was worth and fighting to get every penny of what I was worth. And just being a person I could trust to help me navigate this industry because obviously they’re going to have more experience out there in the world with many deals than I ever could.
I think that’s a valuable service for 10 percent.
Chris: I was going to say I like my agent so much I’m willing to pay him directly for what he does for me.
Chris: And my agent before I would have paid her as well. That’s how much I like them.
Angelina: Yes. That’s right.
John: Lady Page writes, “Can I still wear yoga pants to business casual days?”
Angelina: Yes. It’s a free country. You can wear whatever you want.
John: Yeah. I’m a big fan of yoga pants. They’re actually very comfortable.
Angelina: They are.
Chris: Depending on what the membership decides. I mean, I don’t know whether we’ll find that out.
John: Well actually the membership–
Angelina: That’ll be our next vote.
John: The membership is maybe sort of the writers’ room. So I guess within a writers’ room there’s a sort of – is it a formal code or you just sort of figure out what’s cool in your room?
Angelina: I mean, I wore my pajamas to work for the first probably three or four years of my career before I realized I was an adult and should probably dress like one. So, nobody ever said anything.
Chris: That was during your baby writer phase.
Angelina: I was such a baby.
John: So we’re saying thumbs up on yoga pants. Aline Brosh McKenna probably would have a different opinion, but she’s not here right now.
Angelina: She’s a classy lady.
John: She’s a classy lady. Andy Lee writes, “Why are the agents so bad at negotiating?” I think that’s circular logic. He’s begging the question.
Chris: They’re so good at negotiating.
John: I think agents are good at negotiating our deals for stuff, sometimes. And my agents have gotten me really good deals on things.
Angelina: I think they’re uncomfortable – we are forcing them onto our playing field of collective bargaining. And they just don’t have as much experience with that and they’re very uncomfortable there. And that’s good for us because, again, we want as much power as we can get.
I think they’re very good at negotiating. I think this playing field is new to them.
Chris: Yeah. But I think some of this is also – this is a little bit of theater again.
Angelina: Yes. Correct.
Chris: We don’t know what’s going on.
Chris: This is not our way. Why are you doing it differently?
And it’s all fine. Nothing wrong with it. Let them do that. They are fully capable of negotiating this contract if and when they want to do that.
John: And we see them organizing, too. So they’re doing their outreach to their members. They’re having meetings. They’re doing all the same stuff that we do.
Angelina: That’s right.
John: They’re playing the game.
Chris: They’re not the underdogs in this.
John: They’re not.
Angelina: No, they are not.
John: Erin S. asks, “Why is your rhetoric so heated? The agencies are not our enemies. The studios are.”
Chris: I think there’s two parts to that question. The first is it is absolutely true the agents are not our enemies. They are our deeply conflicted allies. And in a world in which the studios against whom we negotiate are extremely powerful we need unconflicted allies. That’s what we’re fighting to get. And the truth is I understand that sometimes conflicted allies are more complicated than simple enemies. We’re writers. What’s so hard to figure out that there’s not black and white. It’s not good or bad. Why do we need to paint it that way?
Angelina: That’s right.
Chris: These are people who work for us most of the time. But they’re also working for themselves in ways that the law and ethics suggests they should not and that’s what we’re putting right. The question of whether our rhetoric is too extreme or not is a more complicated question. Look, it’s a fair question. I mean, should this have been ratcheted down by 10 percent or 15 percent? I don’t know. But I think that a lot of the people who are angry at how they perceive our rhetoric as being somewhat inflammatory forget that there are thousands of members of this guild who didn’t know anything about what packaging was. And unlike an MBA negotiation they are being whispered to every day and every week by their agencies telling them one thing. And it’s necessary for us not to just name things but to characterize them. To talk about them as they are. And that may seem like more extreme rhetoric than you want to hear against somebody who has been heretofore your friend in the business, but part of our job – you know this Angelina – is to engage people and get them – they need to be a little bit riled up. They can’t be too riled up because we need to eventually make peace in all of this.
But in order to make peace properly we first need to have people understand and fully committed. So some people will find our rhetoric precisely what they need. And some people will find it a little bit too much. And some people won’t be paying attention at all. It’s impossible to get it exactly right.
I understand why some of the members are conflicted about that. But I think if you took a vote on whether our rhetoric was right on or not I think we’d still get a majority saying thank you for explaining to me exactly the scope of what this problem is.
Angelina: And I also, Chris you may disagree with this. You have so much more experience in these negotiations than I do. But my gut instinct is that ratcheting down our rhetoric doesn’t give us a better chance of getting a good deal. I don’t think they’re not making a deal with us because their feelings are hurt. So I understand the anxiety on a personal level because those who like their agents it can be awkward. But on a systemic level, which is what we’re really dealing with here. This actually isn’t about individual agents. This is about a system that places pressure and has frozen streams of power and money in a way that harms writers. We’re trying to undo that system. And then those agents who we love will be more effective agents in a better system. So if it’s painful for you or hard for you I would suggest maybe just thinking of it in terms of systems and not people.
Chris: I think that’s true. Although to be completely fair to the other side, which is to say now our own members who are upset about our rhetoric, they would argue eventually you have to make peace. And if you get people too angry, if you rile them up too much the making peace becomes less possible.
Angelina: I understand that. I agree.
Chris: There is a kind of balancing that we need to that we continue to do at every point.
Angelina: That’s true. Yes.
Chris: And I would say to those members who are upset at us about that, no battle this big is waged without some disagreement about tactics or the extent of them.
Chris: It doesn’t fundamentally change that we’re all on the same side about this.
Angelina: That’s right. Well said.
John: Holly writes, “What percent has the salary of the agent risen compared to that of the writer they represent over the same time period? How can the agent/agency possibly be content merely repping a writer now after this? And is criminal and/or civil litigation being assessed for past wrongs?”
So on this first point, how much has the salary of the agent risen? I have no idea. We have no idea.
Angelina: We can’t know. Their books are closed.
Chris: We do know that the most powerful agencies, as agencies have an influx of billions of dollars in capital which happens when billions of dollars eventually are paid back to their investors, or at least hope to be paid back.
John: And some of that seems like inflammatory rhetoric when we point that out, but I think it’s important. The members need to know this.
Angelina: It’s true.
Chris: And by the way, I don’t care about agents being wealthy. It’s not a question of whether they have a lot of money. I think people misperceive the argument that we’re making there. It’s not about the idea that they shouldn’t pursue that. What it is is that when the agencies cease to be organizations principally concerned with raising our salaries and instead become organizations principally concerned with raising their own and those two are not connected—
Angelina: That’s right.
Chris: Then we have a real problem. So if they have investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, and you can’t possibly pay that off on the ten percent commission business, therefore you’ve got to go into the business for example where you are employers of writers, that’s a problem. It’s not really that those agents individually take home a nice paycheck. It’s precluding us from doing that.
Angelina: That’s right.
John: Yeah. Last two questions. Mike Royce writes, “What did Chris Keyser think of the UTA numbers blizzard?” So this was a presentation, a PowerPoint show put out by UTA that showed that they went through their books and found that writers on UTA packaged shows versus non-UTA packaged shows the packaged shows they actually made more money. What did you make of this presentation?
Chris: I think it’s playing around with numbers in ways that I don’t appreciate. Thanks Mike for asking me.
Chris: So a couple of things. You guys can chime in here also because I think you know these answers as well as I do. The first is there’s no comparison that we can actually make in this world between package and non-package shows. Essentially 98% of television shows are packaged. And those that aren’t are of a different quality than the ones – by quality I mean by budgets and things. They tend to be small Disney shows. So it’s meaningless to say that packaged shows have writers who earn more money than non-packaged shows. There’s no apples to apples comparison.
John: There’s no alternate universe where there’s a bunch of non-packaged shows we can look at. They just don’t exist.
Chris: That’s right. The second thing is, of course, because they’re UTA-packaged shows it means ipso facto that UTA is representing the highest paid person on that show, the showrunner. That’s the reason why they have the package. So naturally those shows should have higher – was it average?
John: An average. They use average.
Chris: And by the way that’s another reason why. So you have this enormously high starting salary for a showrunner and that skews things. The third thing is, of course, they’re including commissions in all of that which means in the end all they’re really talking about is the commissions and we’ve spoken about that and why we think that pales in comparison to a 23 percent decline in above-scale income.
So in the long run those numbers aren’t particularly good. And I know we get attacked periodically for the fact that our WGA surveys, which are pretty good, they have thousands of respondents, a huge percent, they wouldn’t be worthy of journals. You couldn’t publish them. But they’re pretty information that we have about what writers are doing and they’ve been consistent what they’re telling us over the last decade.
So, we get it UTA. It’s just part of the game.
Angelina: I liked their graphics.
John: Oh, OK. Thumbs up on graphics.
Angelina: It looked good.
John: It looked good. Yeah, we don’t do a lot of graphics.
Angelina: We’re not fancy.
John: We’re not fancy that way. So we appreciate when people are willing to be fancy. I should say–
Chris: I feel, by the way John, I want to say I know it’s hard because this always depends upon whether you actually implicitly believe your leadership or not, but we don’t make up numbers. We don’t twist them around. We’re not asking people to take risks for no reason. We have no incentive to engage in a battle when writers for example are not actually making less money than they made before.
I understand that in a kind of war like this, you know, you begin to use all kinds of tactics. It is disappointing that an agency would manipulate its numbers in order to say to writers you shouldn’t be upset about something. Which they certainly should be.
John: Talking of numbers, Ivan writes “What is the voting threshold needed to approve this code of conduct? If we are to follow through on the promise that this is a democratic decision dependent entirely upon the results of the membership vote the precise percentage needed to pass the measure must be known in advance of the vote. For the sake of protecting the integrity of the resulting action or inaction I would ask that Mr. Keyser and the leadership disclose the percentage needed to pass the code of conduct.”
So, the threshold to pass–
Chris: To pass it. That’s just a technical question. Somewhere over 50 percent passes the code of conduct.
John: So it passes the resolution to authorize the board–
Chris: To consider implementing. But remember the resolution says when appropriate after the agreement expires. And that’s really important because the truth is, first of all, David Goodman has been very clear, the president of the Writers Guild of America West, that the number will need to be overwhelming. The reason why none of us can give you a precise number is I think related to what you spoke about earlier which is the decision to impose a code of conduct has everything to do with a lot of things that are going on on the ground at the moment. So, it has to do with the total number of votes that we get, the percentage of the membership votes. It has to do with some assessment of the depth of support for the measure. It has a lot to do with what’s going on in the negotiation at the present moment, and might be going on up until the day that the AMBA expires, because we have the right to continue if we want to. So that assessment is somewhat fluid.
But people need to understand if you don’t want to leave your agent, if the code of conduct is implemented, don’t vote yes.
Angelina: Yeah. This isn’t like the SAV where we say give us a big stick so we can go scare people and we promise not to use it unless we absolutely have to. You should vote yes only if you’re willing to walk away from your agent. The leadership wants to hear your honest vote. We want the truth. And we will act accordingly. But if you don’t want to walk away vote no.
Chris: And yet it is still our goal to have enough – wield enough power to get what we need with the least amount of confusion and suffering.
Angelina: That’s right. That’s right.
John: Final question. Lawant writes, “What’s to stop anyone from starting a new agency that actually does what agencies are supposed to do?”
Angelina: Nothing. Come on in, boys, the water is fine.
Chris: And it’s a good business. It made a lot of agencies in the years before packaging very well to do and very important in the business.
John: There’s like 196 agencies. There are a ton of agencies, but could some of these agents at these bigger places decide I want to be in the 10 percent business and take their clients and go with them?
Angelina: I think they could.
Chris: Of course.
John: Sure. That’s how CAA was formed. That’s how Endeavor was formed.
Chris: Of course.
John: There’s always been a history of agencies just springing up.
Chris: Yeah. Right. And by the way in 1962 when MCA, the biggest agency in the country, went out of the agency business to become Universal Studios, other agencies took over.
Angelina: It’s a profitable business.
John: All right. Thank you for your questions that people wrote in. Thank you for these great answers. It’s nice to talk through that.
Chris: Thank you.
Angelina: You’re welcome.
John: And now it is time for our One Cool Things, where we talk about something we want to recommend to our listeners. My One Cool Thing is a book. It is Ask a Native New Yorker by Jake Dobkin. It’s just a really good book for anybody who is considering moving to New York City. And is just advice on everything that you will encounter as you move to New York City. He’s a very, very strong advocate for New York. Like almost too strong. He’s a little bit dismissive of all other cities. But sometimes that’s what you want in a person who is advocating for a city.
So, if you are considering in any way moving to New York City I would strongly recommend Ask a Native New Yorker.
Angelina: That’s cool. My One Cool Thing is my favorite show the last few years. It’s called Patriot. It’s on Amazon Prime. Created by Stephen Conrad. I will do it a disservice by trying to describe it. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. But it has such a huge, hard beating heart at its center. It is so optimistic while wrestling with the darkest parts of humanity that it just makes my heart sing. And I prostelytize it at every chance I get.
John: Hurrah. I should watch it.
Chris: It’s good. Can you call me back when you have One Uncool Thing? I have to admit I’ve been a little busy. I asked my writers’ room what to recommend.
John: You threw it out to the room for pitches.
Chris: Yeah. And I’m taking credit for it, which is what it’s like to do a show. They said there’s a show called Money Heist on Netflix which is a Spanish show about a group of people trying to steal from the Spanish Mint and they say it’s incredible. By the way, my favorite show in the last month or two is My Brilliant Friend on HBO.
Angelina: Oh, I haven’t seen that yet, but I heard it’s beautiful.
John: Yeah. Pen15 is also really good. There’s too much good TV.
Angelina: There’s a lot of good stuff out there. We should get paid for it. [laughs]
John: We should. We should get paid for it. That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megana Rao. Edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Chuck Eyler. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. But for short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. Are you guys on Twitter?
Angelina: Not anymore.
John: Ah, she’s off Twitter. And so is Chris Keyser.
Chris: Yes, off. I’ve never been on.
John: Smart choices you’ve made.
You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a comment. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. And I may see some of you at one of these big public meetings.
Angelina: Yes, come join us.
Chris: Please come. Where are you headlining on Tuesday?
John: I’m out of town on Tuesday, so I won’t be able to do that, but I’m back for the Wednesday one.
Angelina: Great. We’ll see you there.
John: Cool. Thanks.
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