Vying to steer the Writers Guild of America, there’s a slate of high-profile dissident candidates. Among them is “Chernobyl” writer-creator Craig Mazin, who recognizes that his proposed strategy in the screenwriters’ battle against talent agencies — compromising on the controversial practice of packaging — isn’t exactly sexy.
“You generally get the best outcome if you can think from your point of view, and from the other person’s point of view. You’ll actually do better than if you shut the other person’s point of view off and hold your breath,” he told IndieWire. “It’s so pragmatic. It’s so bottom-line oriented that it doesn’t necessarily quicken the pulse.”
It’s been over three months since 7,000 Hollywood writers fired their agents after the big agencies, represented by the Association of Talent Agents, rejected the WGA’s demands that they abandon packaging — the decades-old practice of agencies bundling a project/script with talent from its ranks to sell a movie or TV show.
The WGA argues that packaging creates an conflict of interest by incentivizing deals with generous packaging terms rather than terms that best benefit clients, from whom agents take a 10% cut. Under the leadership of president David Goodman, the WGA refuses to budge, and the battle is now in the courts.
Underlining all of this is the over $3 billion in private equity investment that WME, CAA, and UTA have absorbed in the last 10 years. The WGA argues that Wall Street influence — and dreams of an IPO — have shifted the agencies’ mission of serving clients.
Last month, the union rejected the ATA’s latest offer: to share 2% of agency profits from packaging. However, some members are getting restless with the stalemate. They hoped that voting to fire their agents in April — a decision that enjoyed 95% support — would give them leverage at the negotiating table.
Mazin said that hasn’t happened.
“Our leadership does an excellent job of internal organizing, of making sure the union can move as one — which you need,” he said. “The problem is, I don’t think they know what to do with that weapon once they get it.”
Following the mass firings, the WGA sued the big four agencies. WME, CAA, and UTA countersued.
Enter the dissidents: Mazin is running for vice president in the board election that closes mid-September. He’s part of a slate led by presidential candidate Phyllis Nagy, Oscar-nominated for her “Carol” screenplay, and rounded out by secretary-treasurer hopeful Nick Jones Jr., whose credits include the Hulu series “Casual.”
The trio, who announced their candidacies within the last two weeks, are already enjoying A-list support.
Damien Chazelle, Carlton Cuse, Ava DuVernay, Mitch Hurwitz, Melissa McCarthy, Ryan Murphy, Aaron Sorkin, Lena Waithe, D.B. Weiss, and David Weissman are among the 445 signatories of an open letter endorsing the candidates that was first posted on Medium by Nagy.
The letter acknowledged that while agency practices need major reform, a courtroom is not the venue for battle. On “Scriptnotes,” the podcast he co-hosts with screenwriter John August, Mazin said the WGA should abandon its current position of packaging as a non-starter and instead consider negotiating some sort of revenue-sharing deal.
“Our union is strong enough to endure honest differences of opinion voiced by writers who are loyal to the guild and its mission, who are driven by their concern for our most vulnerable members, but who believe there is a different way to achieve our shared goals,” the letter reads.
Nagy has been vocal in her concern for younger, less well-established writers. She created a GoFundMe page to raise money for writers who lost their health insurance during the dispute. She was part of Writers for Negotiation, a group that has criticized the union’s approach.
WGA Negotiating Committee member Shawn Ryan fired back against the recent electioneering, calling the opposition’s mindset “dangerously naïve in terms of actual negotiations,” predicting that if elected, Nagy would be unable to strike a deal with the agencies, Deadline reported.
For his part, Ryan is known for his support of the WGA’s current strategy and for his efforts to help younger writers find jobs without agents.
So far, the union’s tactics have won over smaller agencies. Verve, Buchwald, and Kaplan Stahler signed the code of conduct that outlines the WGA’s firmly held position on packaging. And a group of Abrams Artists agents formed a new agency to sign the code, according to Variety.
However, Mazin maintains that the practice of signing individual agencies isn’t sustainable.
“Nobody reasonably believes the future of the Writers Guild is that thousands of members that were represented by the four largest agencies will be absorbed by 12 tiny ones,” he said.