Hollywood writers begin firing their agents over fee dispute

Hollywood’s biggest labor battle in a decade is officially underway. The issue, as is usually the case, is money.

The Writers Guild of America is taking action against the industry’s biggest talent agencies. A bevy of writers who are members of the guild have broken off ties with the agents who usually represent them.

The guild has 15,000 members, so the action could have sweeping consequences. This mass firing of agents has never happened before, so no one quite knows what’s going to happen or how long it’s going to last.

The two sides had been holding contentious negotiations until Friday, when the writers had set a deadline for talent agencies to accept its new “code of conduct.”

A few hours before the deadline, the guild told its members that talks had failed, so it was time to cut ties with the agents.

The Association of Talent Agents said Friday night that the writers guild wants “chaos” that “will hurt all artists.”

But the guild said the agents have not adequately addressed “our expressed concerns” about packaging fees and other issues.

Here is how the writers guild frames the issues: “Our agents work for us. Every dollar they make must be generated as a percentage of the money we make. That is what it means to be our representatives and our fiduciaries. Agency-based studios and packaging fees make a mockery of that and are in violation of the agencies’ ethical and legal obligations to writers.”

Packaging fees are lucrative payments that agencies receive for putting together multiple clients — say, a writer and a director and an actor — as a “package” for a TV studio.

The writers guild says it wants to “realign agency incentives so they are consistent with, rather than competing with, the interests of writer clients.” Thus, the new “code of conduct.” One of the guild’s slogans has been “clients over conflicts.”

Screenwriter John August, who wrote films like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Big Fish,” tweeted, “My agent of 20+ years is a great friend and fighter for my career. I would give him a kidney tomorrow. But this isn’t about him or any single agent. Until agencies put #ClientsOverConflicts we can’t work together. Simple as that.”

Famous Hollywood names like Damon Lindelof Hart Hanson and David Simon have posted their agent termination letters on social media.

The four big talent agencies in the US are WME, CAA, UTA and ICM. They, and other smaller agencies, are represented by the Association of Talent Agents.

Karen Stuart, the association’s executive director, said in a statement that the “code of conduct” will “hurt all artists, delivering an especially painful blow to mid-level and emerging writers, while dictating how agencies of all sizes should function.”

Stuart said “we came to the negotiating table in good faith and put forth comprehensive proposals,” but the guild “refused to negotiate further.”

“We’re prepared to continue to fight for the best interests of writers and all artists,” she added.

There is no indication that further talks are scheduled right now.