Breaking Down The Hollywood Dispute Between Writers And Agents
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now we turn to Hollywood to check in on the dispute between writers and talent agents. After groups representing both parties failed to reach an employment agreement, the Writers Guild instructed members to cut ties with their agents. That group represents thousands of writers, and the dispute could stall production of scripted TV shows and movies. Here to tell us what this means is Kim Masters. She's an editor at large at The Hollywood Reporter.
Kim Masters, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
KIM MASTERS: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Can you just tell us as briefly as you can how we got to this point?
MASTERS: There has been a process called packaging that goes back more than 40 years. It's become an institution in this industry. And packaging means - this is primarily a thing now with television writers - when an agency puts together elements of a show and sells it to a studio, the studio pays the agency a fee directly. And this has various effects that the writers are now completely fed up with. They argue that the agents who are getting paid by the studios have a conflict because their job is to represent the writer and not make deals for themselves with the studios.
And they say that this causes writers to be underpaid. Oftentimes, writers don't even know that they're part of a package. They say that if you're developing a TV show, these fees that the studio is paying the agencies can cut the budget for your own TV show, diminishing your chances for success, because you can't necessarily hire the actor you want or get the location you want.
MARTIN: I think people could see their point. For example, if you were in a real estate transaction, and if you hired somebody to represent you, to then find out that that person was actually the person selling the house, for example - you would experience that as a conflict. So what do the agents say about that? What has their position been about that?
MASTERS: Well, what the agents give up in this scenario of packaging is you normally would pay a 10 percent commission to your agent for getting you a job, and you don't pay if the packaging fee is involved. So the agents are saying this helps lower-level writers because they can make more money. But the writers argue that this is more than offset by the potential conflicts that these agents have collecting fees from the studios.
And they point out and argue that their compensation has gone down in recent years overall. One of the writers said how he had walked through an art gallery at his agency. These agencies have all of this wealth and accoutrements and try to look very, very successful. But at this point, the writers are looking at all of those signs of success and saying, wasn't some of that money supposed to be mine?
MARTIN: So the Writers Guild leadership wrote to members saying that they are about to enter unchartered waters. What are some of the repercussions of this that we might see? Recognizing I'm asking you to speculate here since - as by definition, it's uncharted - what do you think might happen? What are people concerned about?
MASTERS: Well, guild members as of now are expected to fire their agents. It is pilot season, so the shows are staffing up right now. And what the writers are trying to do is figure out alternate means to communicate about what jobs are available and help people find jobs without involving agents.
MARTIN: Is there any entity or group working to resolve this?
MASTERS: Right now, we are looking at what seems like impasse. These are very divergent interests right now. The agents feel they must produce. They certainly don't want to give up these very, very lucrative packaging fees. Sometimes they make more than the writers from TV shows created by the writers. So this is really kind of an existential struggle, and I'm not sure how I see the way out.
MARTIN: That's Kim Masters, editor at large for The Hollywood Reporter.
Kim, thank you so much for joining us.
MASTERS: Oh, thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VERVE'S "BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.