One of the arguments we have made against packaging fees is that they have contributed to the steep decline in writers’ above-scale income. The logic of this is that agencies, whose profits no longer derive, principally, from maximizing our income, have lost the traditional economic incentive to demand wage growth for writers. These agencies, made wealthy by the money they collect from TV and feature license fees and backend, have become, at best, passive onlookers to the economic decline of writers, putting up too little resistance against studios who seek to limit their labor costs – or, at worst, collaborators in a collusion that has kept studio costs low and made agencies hundreds of millions while leaving writers behind.
Some of you may listen to that argument and respond: that does not remind me of my agent. My agent works hard for me. He or she has consistently improved my quote. Or, even if he or she has failed to do so, it is not for lack of trying.
That is undoubtedly true for some of us. Some of us have very close relationships with our agents, have been with them for many years, and see them as effective advocates for our careers and economic advancement.
The truth of that for you – even the unalloyed truth of that – does not contradict the argument we are making on behalf of the entire membership.
First of all, the varying success of individual members, across an entire career or in a period of particular productivity, has never been an argument against the Guild’s attack on practices that are, on balance, detrimental to the membership as a whole. The 96%-plus strike vote we achieved in 2017 included the affirmative vote of many members whose own personal economy was thriving at the time and who had suffered none of the adverse consequences that were addressed by our pattern of demands.
Many of us may have very effective individual agents. Despite that, writers’ above-scale income has declined by more than 20% in the last five years, even as budgets have soared and industry profits exploded. That failure lies squarely at the feet of the agencies. And it is in response to that failure that we are acting now.
This is why we say – and have always said – that our quarrel is with the agencies and not with individual agents.
Still, it is true that we are asking you to hold your individual agent accountable if he or she is employed at a packaging agency. Those agents – even the best and most effective of them – are participating in and profiting from a system that is corrupt and destructive to the economic best interests of writers. And even the best and most effective of our agents are often, in the current system, neutered in their negotiations with the studios. That is because when agencies, as a whole, roll over and accept the diminishing above-scale compensation that studios are offering, individual agents have limited power to fight back.
How many of us have heard our agent report, “That’s what they’re paying. They don’t care what you made before. You might as well take it. If you don’t, someone else will.” When they say that to us, though they may be disappointed on our behalf, even genuinely disappointed, they are – if they work for a packaging agency – feeling none of it in their pocketbook, as we do. And that’s a problem.
We know that it is difficult to say some of the things to your agents that we may ask you to say – including that you’ll leave them, if it comes to that. For many of us, these agents are our friends. They know us and our partners and our children. We know theirs. They have shared the ups and downs, not just of our business lives, but our private lives. Even so, they are not just friends; they are business associates. And their friendship with us does not shield them from the absolute ethical and legal requirement that they behave honorably in business (directly and through the companies for whom they work). If they are true friends, that simple truth will not end relationships. And if that simple truth does end relationships, then they were an odd kind of friend to begin with.
Whether you have been with your agent for a year or twenty years – whether you love them, harbor not-so-secret anger and resentment toward them, or vacillate between the two – that agent is, for each of us, an ally in a pretty ruthless business. Putting that relationship at risk –particularly for those of us who have struggled to get an agent – is a very scary thing. And no argument in a document that your Guild sends you – no matter how well reasoned – is going to change that.
In the end, it always comes down to this: In a tenuous, cyclical business, in a career that can have a short life span, there is a very great incentive for us to say, “I know I’m not being treated as I deserve to be. I know I’m not being paid the true value of my work – and that other people are benefiting in an out-sized way from what I create. But this is my dream job. And there’s nothing else I want to do – nothing else that allows me to create something rather than just labor I would rather play it safe – take something and leave the rest on the table – then find myself asking for more and winding up with less. I’d prefer if my agency didn’t take advantage of me. But I can live with that, if I have a career. Because I know one kind of writer who never gets taken advantage of in that way – and that is a writer who isn’t working.”
That fear – a fear that the agencies will stoke in us – both protects and defeats us. Balancing it, wisely, with the necessity, not moral, but practical, of demanding our due, is a difficult job. And while the Guild can help manage the risks it asks its members to take, it cannot and should not remove the fear that accompanies acting bravely in defense of one’s own interest.
In this case, no one is being asked to walk off a job. But we are asking you to hold your agencies – and even the very finest of our agents –accountable. In some ways, that may seem scarier than a battle with companies, whom we understand to be our adversaries, at least in negotiations.
But if we don’t realign agency interests so that they line up directly with ours, as opposed to with the studios – if we don’t protect against our representatives becoming our employers – then we have accepted a rigged system in which the studios can hope to recoup every dollar they concede to us in the MBA with a dollar they save in private negotiations with our representatives. That is a very bleak world for writers, going forward.
So, yes, it is scary to look your agent in the eye and say, regardless of my personal feelings for you and our years of relative success together, my Guild has asked me to demand that you either behave as my true fiduciary or step aside. But, out of necessity and at long last, that is what all of us may have to do.