One of the largest labor battles in recent memory is taking place in a high-profile industry right now, and yet it has not quite risen to the level of major news in our capitalist media. Weird!
Anyway, the Writers Guild of America—a union of two Hollywood labor unions in New York and Los Angeles representing TV and film writers—is suing the big four talent agencies over conflict of interest concerns regarding packaging fees, and WGA general counsel Tony Segall said the lawsuit is designed to “establish that packaging fees are illegal under the law of California.”
Packaging fees may sound like they are some inside-baseball Hollywood-talk, but it’s actually a central fissure in the economics of how TV and film is made, as Variety reported.
Two writers — Meredith Stiehm and Barbara Hall — spoke at the WGA’s news conference about what they said were harmful experiences with packaging fees. Stiehm was the creator on the CBS series “Cold Case.” In the show’s seventh season, Stiehm was asked to gut her budget, leave location shooting in Philadelphia, forgo music licensing and make other concessions she said “adversely affected the quality of the show.”
Meanwhile, she noted, CAA made $75,000 per episode as a part of their packaging fee on the series. The production studio, Warner Bros., refused to reduce the fee. Stiehm estimated CAA made 94 cents on every dollar she earned on the show.
The WGA asserts that not only are packaging fees deleterious to their business, but that these fees disincentivize agents from fighting for higher wages for their writer clients, since the agency gets a cut of backend profits. As always in capitalism, your salary is an obstacle to profits. This is a fundamental truth in this economic system, like gravity.
Over 7,000 WGA writers have fired their agents, and this challenge to major power players in Hollywood is officially serious. While it’s not easy for a lot of writers to (temporarily) end longtime relationships, a union only has power in numbers, and there is a clear conflict of interest when these agencies’ profits are tied to their clients making less money, and something must change if Hollywood is to continue to attract talented writers like the ones leading us through our current TV golden age. This kind of blind chase for short-term profits is emblematic of our larger capitalist malaise. Growing the pie is the only economic consideration given by those who control major capital in this country.
Which brings me to The West Wing—a great fictional TV show that helped ruin liberal politics for a generation. It reinforced the false belief amongst liberals that history was not defined by winning a majority and forcing good legislation like the New Deal or Medicare down an intransigent minority’s throat then saying, “you’re welcome for the health care,” but through civility and bipartisanship and coming together for Common Sense Solutions (oh and aiding major capital in their decades-long war against labor unions).
While this is a nice thought in a fictional universe, we live in a world with the real Republican Party—a party which supports Donald freaking Trump at about a 90% clip. We can’t afford to be that naive, and yet here we are.
Jon Robin Baitz was a writer on The West Wing, and according to Deadline, he is the first “major writer to rebuff WGA demand he fire his agents.” Baitz wrote a letter to Guild Leadership that sounds like it was crafted by the DCCC. Per Baitz:
I am deeply saddened to say I cannot go along with your insistence that I fire my agents at CAA. This, despite my fervent belief in the WGA’s mission and accomplishments.
First, I have made a deal with WIIP, a studio owned in part by CAA. If I were to fire them, I would be a hypocrite, which is something I try very hard to avoid in life, with admittedly mixed results. Let me point out, my deal at WIIP for Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, which has an on-air order of 8 episodes from Amazon, is the best I have ever made. (You claim these lucrative deals are “loss leaders”, based on I know not what.) I, in turn, have hired three members of the WGA at producer levels, and am making a writer’s assistant, a female diversity hire, into a staff writer during the first order. But more importantly, I have to be honest about my relationship with my agents, which I think isn’t all that unusual.
“Being honest about writers’ relationship with their agents” is the entire point of this exercise. Their agents’ (bosses) make more money if the writers make less money. That’s the definition of a conflict of interest. The only way that labor can ever fight back against capital is by banding in numbers, and Mr. West Wing here expressed support for the WGA, all while acting against the WGA’s interests in what may double as performance art summarizing the Democratic Party over the last 40 years.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.