Writers’ Experiences

Writers Share Their Experiences With Agency Packaging and Producing

The duty of agents is to represent writers and act in their best interest. Unfortunately, because of the conflicts of interest allowed in the current agreement between WGA and the Association of Talent Agencies, agencies are often doing anything but that. Writers have been sharing their experiences with conflicted representation, showing how it harms us both creatively and economically. Please share your experiences with us. Email Agency Agreement.

The statements below have been submitted confidentially to the Guild by members and published with their permission.

Agencies Put Their Interests First

“I put an entire show together, but I didn’t want my agency to get the package. In the end, they held the deal hostage and I had to cave to get the project through. Every network I showed the project to made a bid on my show. I wanted it to go to one network, but my agent thought they’d get a bigger package if they went with another network, so they sold the package to them. My agent told me that there was a bigger penalty with the network they preferred, but I found out later that wasn’t true. Then, a network executive told me that my agency was holding the project hostage with the packaging fee. My agency was not representing my best interest—they were representing theirs.”

“I like working on a TV writing staff, but agents are not interested in representing writers who want to do that. They’re only interested in writers who develop new projects because that’s how they get a package fee. I went looking for an agent and met with some low level agents at one of the big agencies. They seemed very excited until I said I wanted to work as staff on a show rather than develop. They said, ‘If you’re not into developing, then we’re not interested. It’s not worth it to us.”

“Before I became a working writer, I worked in the packaging department of a major agency. I saw firsthand how packaging influenced the way agents steered their clients’ careers. Problematic situations would come up, like when the agency wanted to move from a partial package to a full package; agents would push writers into packages to maximize the agency’s revenue, regardless of whether it was in the clients’ best interests or even what they wanted.”

“As part of an overall deal, I consulted with a writing team who were represented by a different agency on a pilot they were developing. I made clear to the studio that I didn’t want my name on the show, nor any fees taken off the screen, nor any backend participation as the other writers did all the work and my contributions were minimal. The show ended up getting picked up and was a hit out of the gate. Midway through the first season, my lawyer called and asked me if I knew that my agency had taken backend on the show for themselves. I was surprised and confused. It turns out that my agency had negotiated themselves a half-package on the show based on my involvement, but never told me about it. They represent me and knew I didn’t want to take backend from the writing team, but had no problem taking it for themselves. End result: My agency, which doesn’t represent the writer/creators, owns more of the show than I do.”

“A network challenged the formula for a package fee that an agency was insisting upon. The network wanted to lower it to the level charged by another agency – not do away with it. During a yearlong stalemate the agency withheld series pitches to that network from all their clients. No agency client pitched a series to that network that year. Not because the network said they wouldn’t take the pitches; not because the network wasn’t offering enough compensation to the writers. Solely because the agency put its compensation ahead of its clients’ job opportunities, no writers from that agency sold a series to that network. Series that would have sold didn’t. And the clients never knew why.”

A showrunner for a long-running packaged series reports that for many seasons the long-time writing staff of the series has received 3% increases each season, nothing more. The agency has not negotiated any increase to any writer’s overscale in years. The package fee in the budget is among the highest in the industry.

“My agency was in the middle of negotiating an overall deal for me with a studio I’d worked with before. While looking around for projects for the overall deal, I found a book I loved, and learned that my agency was representing the rights. My agency enthusiastically set up a call for me to speak with the author of the book. The author and I had a great conversation. Twenty minutes after that call, my agency called to tell me that the author loved my take and would love for me to adapt the book into a series. Everything seemed great, until the studio was about to put in an offer to option the book, and my agency suddenly told me that there was other interest in the project. As it turned out, that interest was from a producer that had a deal with my agency’s production arm. Even though the studio I was working with put in a slightly higher final offer, and the other producer didn’t have a writer involved, the producer working with my agency wound up winning the bidding war. At one point, my agency suggested that I didn’t have to do that overall deal they’d been negotiating for me—the implication being that I could work with their preferred producer if I backed out of the overall deal. So I didn’t do that show. How does a producer end up with the rights when another studio makes a higher offer that has an experienced writer-showrunner attached? By being the agency-affiliated producer.”

How it was and could be again: “In 2005, I got my first staff job on WGA-covered show. I was repped by a great agent at a boutique agency. I didn’t know a single person over at this long-running hit show, but my agent sold me the right way and got me in for a meeting with the showrunner. When I got the offer, I was thrilled and told my agent to close the deal. Then a week passed, and I didn’t hear from him. I was getting worried. Was he screwing this up? I called him to find out what was going on, and he said: ‘Eh, I’m trying to get you a little more money.’ I started on the show as a staff writer making above scale with a two episode guarantee and a guaranteed bump every year in my three year contract.”

How it is now: “A friend who used to work at one of the Big Four told me the following story. As part of their training, the junior agents were given an in-house course on contract negotiation. They were given a hypothetical deal for a hypothetical client and told to go through a mock negotiation while senior agents watched and gave notes. One of the junior agents was assigned to negotiate a staff writer’s deal on a packaged show. When this junior agent started to present his proposed terms for the deal, one of the senior agents cut in and said: ‘Let me just stop you right there. This is a staff writer on one of our shows. You don’t negotiate these. You take what they offer, say thank you, and move on.’ ”

Packaging Undermines the Agency Incentive to Increase a Client’s Compensation

“My current show is not packaged. One of the producers on the show is represented by an agency who assumed they would split the packaging fee. When this other agency found out they wouldn’t be getting a package fee, the agent called to scream at me. He said, ‘We don’t make our money off the 10%.’ He went on to assure me that they ‘earn’ their share of the package, citing the fact that he had gotten his client (not a writer) to accept a fee substantially below his quote. The agent was bragging about harming their own client. That’s what the incentives created by packaging and conflicts of interest do to writers.”

“I’ve run shows in Canada and the US. In Canada, there is no packaging—at all. The relationships between showrunners and agents are entirely different there. In Canada, agents are much more aggressive. They have to fight for every penny. They’re so great at advocating, calling every day to check in. The difference between agents there and agents here has been stunning—I thought they’d be better here because there’s such a big market. I have been shocked to see writers’ quotes and how long it takes to rise through the ranks. Writers are the ones pushing, with no help from agents. It does work up there—it works better for writers when there are no packages.”

“As a showrunner, I have had my agent come to me and say, basically, ‘Since we’re packaging this, we can help you out with some of our clients. This writer has a $20,000 quote, but I think I could get them for $14,000.’ And then the agency would turn around and sell it to that writer by telling them they’re saving money not paying commission, or that the writer will get a title bump in the second year. But it’s because the agency is taking out their packaging fee that there isn’t more room in the budget!”

“When I am staffing a show, 40-50% of the staff comes from my agency. But since the agency already has a package on the show they’re not negotiating hard for those writers. I see it every day, every time. As a matter of fact, I feel like the agents are servicing me as the more important client, willing to settle for less for other clients because they know I have to answer to the studio for my writers’ budget. So without a strong push from the agency on behalf of their client, the showrunner can end up as the only one attempting to reward a writer on their staff, while at the same time being brow-beaten by the studio or told they could lose an additional slot for another writer.”

Packaging Drives the Creative Process

“Last year, my writing partner and I worked with an actor to develop a series for him to star in. The actor was with another agency. We developed this pitch for him over the course of four months. And then his agent found out and went ballistic, urging his client to abandon us and all the work we’d done to team up instead with various other writers, all of whom were represented by his own agency. When our agent checked in, the actor’s agent was explicit about his motivation: He didn’t want to split the package. Over the next weeks, the actor’s agent did everything he could to stall the pitch and convince his client to drop us for somebody ‘in house.’ Happily, our long history with the actor finally won the day; were it not for that prior relationship, it was quite clear that the whole project and all of our work would have been tossed out to service a package.”

“Packaging limits us creatively. In setting up a show, I have access to 25% of the talent in town. When I was meeting with my agency, I mentioned a producer who I really wanted to bring onto a project, but who was represented by another agency. I was told by my agent, ‘I don’t really trust him, I don’t know if it’s a great idea to work with him.’ But when the producer just happened to switch agencies and joined mine, all of a sudden my agent thought it was a great idea. Because of the switch they were on board, and helped make the deal happen. Packaging fees drive decisions, not what’s best for the client or the show.”

Agency Conflicts Harm Screenwriters

“I’ve made my career in indie film. A few years ago I had a once in a lifetime spec sale that my agency jeopardized because they were refusing to negotiate unless the financier agreed to a packaging fee for the agency. They hold us for ransom. Paradoxically, their own argument that they champion independent film collapses on itself because packaging fees take real money out of the budget. That money could go to shooting days or special effects. Packaging fees make it hard to make these films.”

“An agency convinced me to become a client because they wanted access to a feature project idea I had developed. Once the project was under their roof, the agency took control. They pushed me to turn down experienced producers that would have been able to get me paid for the development work, instead insisting that I work with a novice producer that they had a relationship with, without telling me why they were pushing that producer.”

“I had a film project that my agency packaged, and the project had been optioned by a buyer that wasn’t represented by my agency, but worked almost exclusively with them. When the time came to extend the option period, the buyer wanted twice as much time for half the money. My agent said to take the offer, that there wasn’t any other interest in the project, which I knew wasn’t true because I’d gotten interest from multiple other parties. I had my lawyer do the negotiation, and was able to get a much better deal. It was clear that the agency was servicing the buyer, rather than trying to get me the best deal.”

Agencies Are Not Transparent

“My agency did nothing to help me get my project going. They didn’t even set the meeting at the company I sold my show to. I had no idea it was packaged until I saw the line item in my budget and I was totally taken aback. I had been struggling to figure out how I could hire more writers and compensate them fairly and the agency packaging fee could have paid for three more writers. My budget was stretched so thin that I could only hire a skeleton crew and shoot in a warehouse with questionable conditions. It was so bad that I cut my own fees to put money on the screen and better take care of my crew. And as I was doing this, I found out from the studio that my agency had been calling to improve their own compensation. While I was working more for less, the agency wanted a bigger packaging fee.”

“My writing partner and I were brought on to rewrite a pre-existing script, and ended up getting ‘co-created by’ credit when the series got picked up. When we were well into the writers’ room and prep, we found out from a writer (also represented by our agency) that the show was packaged. I had no idea that my agency was taking a packaging fee – as they were still taking commission out of my checks. When I asked my agency about it, they claimed ‘Oh, we return the commission once production ends’ or something to that effect, but I have no idea what would have happened if I hadn’t inquired about it. I thought it was strange that no one bothered to inform their clients that they were taking a packaging fee in the first place.”

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