WGA West presidential candidate William Schmidt is calling on the guild to resume negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents to end their standoff, which is now in its 111th day. “We must return to the negotiating table immediately,” he said in his latest campaign statement.
In March, the guild asked its members to approve the unilateral implementation of a new Agency Code of Conduct that would end packaging fees and agency affiliations with related production entities. That vote was approved by 95.3% of those casting ballots. Two weeks later, the guild ordered all of its members to fire their agents who refused to sign its Code. The Big 4 agencies – WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners – have said they will never sign it. Schmidt, however, refused to fire his ICM agent, saying that the guild’s order violated its own constitution.
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“I believe inherent in the 95.3% vote was the expectation that leadership would negotiate with the ATA, especially the Big Four, who do almost all the packaging,” Schmidt wrote. “But leadership is not negotiating. They refuse to negotiate until the Big Four end packaging and eliminate affiliated production companies. They cite as our biggest weapon the lawsuit filed on behalf of eight writers. This lawsuit may not be resolved for as long as three years.
“The vast majority of our members are not the elite. They are working writers, people who have mortgages to pay, mouths to feed. Why should they, and film writers who are not a part of packaging, be denied the agents they need to help them build and sustain their careers?
“It is magical thinking to expect that the Big Four will ever cave. They have many sources of revenue at their disposal. Packaging will continue, only without writers. While there have obviously been many issues plaguing packaging and agency-owned companies, there are many fixes and safeguards to explore: create a system of checks and balances, transparency, revenue sharing, and a change in fee structure.”
The ATA has offered to share 2% of its backend profits with writers that they package, but the guild flatly rejected the offer. The two sides haven’t met face-to-face in more than a month, though two midsize agencies — Buchwald and Kaplan Stahler — broke ranks with the ATA last week and signed the guild’s modified franchise agreement.
Instead of fighting with agents – and among themselves – Schmidt said that writers should unite for their upcoming negotiations with management’s AMPTP for a new film and TV contract. The WGA is preparing for those talks, even as it battles with the agencies.
“We need to prepare for what will sure to be tough negotiations with the AMPTP coming in May,” he wrote. “Today, writers face unprecedented challenges. Disney recently announced their intent to eliminate backend. If they succeed, residuals may well be their next target.”
“When I joined the union, it was in turmoil. In the 1981 MBA negotiations with the AMPTP, we won a rich reuse formula for VHS cassettes, which eventually included DVD’s. After the contract was signed, the AMPTP contested the agreed-upon formula. They claimed that because of a ‘clerical error’ in the contract itself, we were entitled to a small percentage of the net, not the gross.
“In the 1985 MBA negotiations, the AMPTP demanded we accept their formula. The Guild was riven with conflict. Many were willing to strike to preserve the better reuse monies, but others were not. I was at a membership meeting where fistfights broke out between the two sides.
“Two weeks later, our strike collapsed. We had to accept the AMPTP VHS contract language. We lost the gross because of internal dissension, a defeat still felt keenly today. There was real doubt back then that the WGA would survive as an institution. I experienced this first hand while serving on several Guild committees, including the Negotiating Committee for the 1988 MBA contract.
“Because of our weakness, for the first time ever, the AMPTP demanded rollbacks. We struck in 1988 to fight the rollbacks and to prove we were still viable as a union. Five grueling months of day-in, day-out negotiations followed. Ultimately, we did pull together, beat the roll-backs and won gains in residuals and creative rights for feature writers.
“I ran for and won a seat on the Board of Directors in 1990 because I wanted to be part of the movement to heal the Guild. My proudest accomplishment was when I championed health care for same-sex couples. The vote passed unanimously.”
“When I started out,” he wrote, “consolidation of media companies had just begun; there wasn’t even a Fox network. Now we have four or five huge media conglomerates who can weather a WGA strike easier than in the past. The disunity and discord in the Guild today resembles the years 1985-1988. If we don’t re-unite, we could find ourselves facing rollbacks in the AMPTP negotiations.”
Among the issues he wants the guild to explore in the upcoming talks with the AMPTP are, in Schmidt’s words:
• DVDs are going the way of VHS cassette. Streaming is becoming king. We got a toe in the streaming door in the 2007 strike. Doing better will be a priority.
• In TV, we must break new ground to secure protection for mini-room writers. There is the problem of lower pay. All scripts written in mini-rooms should fall under the ‘back-up script’ clause in the MBA, which pays writers 115% of minimum. Each of these rooms create what is, in effect, a bible. In the MBA, a bible writer is paid $59,927. This money should be split among mini-room writers.
• We made progress in the last MBA negotiations with maternity/paternity leave and other protections for pregnant writers or those who have just given birth, yet we must go farther. Some companies pay writers who go on leave, some don’t. All should.
• I would like to see story editors and staff writers covered with the same span protections as producers and above.
• For feature writers, mini-rooms are also problematic. A handful of writers are paid to break story for the writer of record, but not paid enough and without credit. This must change.
• We also need to tackle the issue of uncredited work. Feature writers should receive screen credit for writing done on a film. Why not put their contributions in the end credits? They should also participate in production bonuses.
• In TV, if you get co-story credit on a pilot, you get residuals, yet feature writers who get even full story-by credits get none. This is wrong.
Schmidt could face a union trial board for refusing to fire his agent, though he says that this would violate his rights because he has told his agent not to procure any work for him until the WGA ends its dispute with the ATA.
“Early in my career, while serving on numerous Guild committees, I became versed in the WGA Constitution,” he wrote. “Recently, we were ordered to fire our agents via e-letter. The WGA Constitution gives the Board of Directors and the officers exactly 17 powers, ranging from hiring and firing of the executive director, to managing Guild public relations. None of these powers allow leadership to order writers to fire their agents. This flies in the face of all Guild and union tradition. This e-letter is unconstitutional. It is a self-inflicted wound and has divided us in a way that the AMPTP never has. To enforce this unconstitutional e-letter, leadership threatened membership with violations of Working Rule 23, which states: ‘No writer shall enter into a representation agreement whether oral or written, with any agent who has not entered into an agreement with the guild covering minimum terms and conditions between agents and their writer clients.’”
To be in violation of that rule, he wrote, “You would have to hire a new agent during contract negotiations with the ATA, or have your (old) agent procure work on your behalf. Working Rule 23 says nothing about firing your agent. Wild threats of tribunals and expulsion from the WGA must end. The harsh language leadership has hurled at the ATA has spilled over into our own discourse. If one disagrees with leadership, they are vilified. This from a Guild that rightfully prides itself on defending freedom of speech.”
“I am running to heal the union and move us pragmatically to the future,” he wrote. “I’ve seen it done. I was part of the solution. I’ve been a working writer for 37 years, seen vast changes, endured setbacks, made comebacks, and weathered many storms. I believe the only way forward is through dialogue, with each other, and our agents.”
Schmidt is running against incumbent president David A. Goodman and Phyllis Nagy, who’s the head of an opposition slate.