David Goodman, president, Writers Guild of America West.

David Goodman, president, Writers Guild of America West. Photo by Charley Gallay

It took him 22 months to do it, but David Goodman proved that the pen is still mighty. As president of Writers Guild of America West, Goodman led the guild’s extended but ultimately successful fight against Hollywood’s powerful talent agencies, which started in 2019 and concluded in early 2021. 

The behind-the-scenes battle had major implications for the industry and, whether they realized it or not, for viewers on every entertainment platform.

The fight finally ended in February when William Morris Endeavor Entertainment became the last of the big four agencies to agree to terms with the WGA on a new four-year contract.

Under terms of the deal, agencies will stop talent packaging — the practice of collecting fees for bringing their own talent onto a project — by June 2022. And they will reduce their stakes in affiliated production companies to no more than 20%.

WGA saw these practices as conflicts of interest for the writers. When the previous franchise agreements expired in April 2019, and new ones could not be reached, WGA encouraged writers to fire their agents.

Goodman talked with the Business Journal about navigating the negotiation process, the pandemic’s impact on the talks and what he expects from future agreements.
What initially triggered the guild to take action against the talent agencies? 
Writers’ salaries were dropping, and our agents’ incomes were increasing. We realized that the agency’s financial interests were no longer tied to the writer and, as a result, writers were not doing as well as the agents. Writers took on this fight to say, ‘If you want to represent writers, you need to return to the classic idea of, we make money, you make money.’ That is, if a writer makes money, the agent makes 10%, so agents’ financial interest is tied to how much their writer client makes.

What was the process for reaching agreements with the agencies?
Over the course of the last two years, writers had fired their agents, and individual agencies slowly came to the table and negotiated new franchise agreements with us. We had enormous success thanks to the organizing efforts and relationship and solidarity in the membership.
How did the writers handle the 22-month strike? 
I think that there was a lot of fear in the beginning that writers would have trouble finding work without their agents. What we discovered was, although that was the case for some writers, the overwhelming majority of writers discovered that they continued to find work. At the core of this was the truth, that agencies need us more than we needed them.


Los Angeles Business Journal

The WGA battle with talent agencies lasted 22 months.

How did the guild’s actions impact writers and the companies that hire them? 
Once agents were taken out of the picture, employers had to find other ways to find writers, and writers found other ways to get connected with the employers. There were some writers who definitely felt disadvantaged by not having their agents, but in 2019, the year we fired our agents, more writers worked than in the history of the guild.
What were the sticking points that made negotiations take longer? 
Depending on the structure of the individual agency’s business, that determined how long it took for an agency to come to the table. For instance, smaller agencies who did not rely on packaging fees to the same extent or who did not have any stake in production companies, it was much easier for them to negotiate with us.
So, the bigger agencies required more complex discussions? 
Once we got into the big four agencies, who had pieces of production companies and had enormous amounts of income from packaging fees … those were the harder deals to make. Especially since two of the large agencies are owned by venture capital or have investments in venture capital, so those were much more complicated deals to negotiate. It’s important in the franchise agreement that we have transparency. (Now), there isn’t anything like the kind of transparency we have with these agencies, CAA and WME, who have so much investment from venture capital. That was an important piece for us going forward to make sure that we will be able to address any conflict of interest that might come up.
How did the pandemic affect negotiations? 
To me, it didn’t affect our side of the business. The pandemic hit and, as it turned out, the only people in the Hollywood community who could continue to work were writers. Actors, directors, crew people — they were hit much harder by the pandemic.
Do you think the pandemic factored into the process for agencies? 
It may have affected whether agencies came to the table or not. I honestly don’t know. There’s no question in my mind that, all the way through this, agencies wanted their writer clients back. There was a lot of narrative and propaganda that they would move on without us, that they would keep packaging fees and just take on actors and directors, but that didn’t happen. Once the pandemic hit, I know that they faced enormous financial difficulties, but I don’t know if that got them to the table faster or not.
The agreements involve a sunset period on the practice of talent packaging. What will happen if that, or any of the other terms, are broken? 
The whole point of the renegotiated agreement was not just getting rid of packaging fees but making sure that if the agency didn’t live up to their promise, that we would have ways to address it. But the agencies are. These agencies wanted the writer clients back; they negotiated this, and they are taking to the deal. They are our partners again. So, this idea that they may decide to break it, I don’t expect that that will happen.
Do you believe future negotiations will follow a similar path to what happened in this round? 
I don’t expect a conflict like this again. I think we’ve gotten what we wanted. We were able to compromise so the agencies felt that they were being heard. We got a deal that really significantly addressed the conflict of interest that we raised. I know the agencies want to keep their relationship with our writers in good standing. The reason (the agreements) expire in this way is not because we’re expecting a bloody negotiation again, but so that when the business changes, we will be able to negotiate the agreement more easily than the last time.
What is going to be your next move after your term as WGA president expires in the fall? 
My day job is as a writer. The guild presidency is not a paid position, so I really want to go back to focusing on my work as a writer. However, if anyone in the guild leadership needs me, for whatever reason, I’ll be there for them as they’ve been there for me.

Keep reading the 2021 LA500 special issue.

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