Appearing at TCA to promote his new Amazon drama Carnival Row, the series’ executive producer and showrunner Marc Guggenheim also faced questions about the ongoing standoff between the WGA and the Association of Talent Agents over several issues, most notably packaging and agency-affiliated production. Guggenheim — a candidate for one of the WGA West Board seats on the platform endorsed by the slate of WGAW President candidate Phyllis Nagy that calls for a strategy shift — also addressed WGAW Executive Director David Young’s lead role in the agency negotiations, calling it “incredibly problematic,” whether he the the other “dissident” candidates would accept packaging to continue and the guild’s “Mexican standoff” legal war with the Big 4 agencies.
“In terms of getting back in the room and negotiate a deal, it’s possible,” Guggenheim said on stage.
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While the WGA membership is about to vote for who should lead the guild, WGAW’s top negotiator, David Young, is a career labor leader who is appointed, not elected. Asked by reporters after the Carnival Row panel whether he thinks that Young should be in charge of the guild’s negotiating, Guggenheim expressed doubts.
“You know what, I don’t know.,” he said. “I do have great respect for David. I do fear that David, who is not a writer, and who was not elected, is dictating all of this. To the extent I’m right about that, that is incredibly problematic to me because, like I said, he’s not a writer and he’s not duly elected by the membership. We need to get back to a place where the president, and on down is charting the courses of the negotiations. Regardless of who the actual person is talking in the room. The strategy, the whole approach that has to be dictated by the members of the membership that we elect to lead us.”
WGA had touted a successful first staffing season without agents, but Guggenheim believes that should not be a deterrent against seeking an agreement. “Agents do a lot more than submit writing samples to showrunners,” he said. “We can get by with agents without that, but it’s not to say we shouldn’t be getting in a room and working out a deal.”
While returning to negotiations with the ATA is a key point in Guggenheim’s platform, he does not support a compromise where agents continue to package shows while representing their writer clients fairly.
“That’s something I would be concerned about. I would certainly hope that’s not the case,” he said. “But if that were to happen, it would expose a serious problem with our present strategy.”
“Here’s the thing: the current leadership, the incumbents, they’re taking our statement from yesterday and spinning it, and saying ‘Well, they want to fold and they want to end the campaign.’ That’s not true at all, that’s the exact opposite of what we want to do. We want to actually pick the campaign back up. Because right now negotiating piece-meal with mid tier agencies, we don’t consider that negotiation. To have real negotiations, it has to be with the ATA, it has to be with the big four agencies and other mid-tiers. If you’re not having those conversations, all you’re doing is racking up massive legal bills. I used to be a litigator and I know how much one litigation is, much less two, one in state court, one in federal.”
“We don’t want to fold, we don’t want to capitulate, we actually want to fight, but fighting involves taking a strong negotiating strategy and actually negotiating not just sitting back and letting a couple of mid-tier agencies represent the entire town’s worth of writers become the new norm.”
While the lawsuits are draining the guild’s rainy day funds, Guggenheim, who worked as a lawyer in Boston for five years before segueing to writing, does not think it’s wise for the WGA to drop them now.
“I think the lawsuits need to continue,” he said. “We’re in a Mexican standoff and I’m not lowering my gun until we all both lower ours. That said, having been a litigator, I don’t believe that the ultimate resolution to this lies in the court system. I stopped being a litigator because I stopped having faith in the legal system, and things have only gotten worse in the intervening 19 years. That said, both litigations are ongoing and I’m not at all unilaterally for dropping our lawsuit. We’re not doing that. That would be folly.”
Guggenheim also shared a concern raised by a number of WGA members that a prolonged fight with agents would hinder the guild’s preparation for the upcoming studio negotiations.
“The worst case scenario is that we go into the AMPTP negotiations with an albatross around our neck and let these negotiations which are incredibly critical, either fail or pass us by,” he said. “There are major things that we need to be addressing when we negotiate with the AMPTP. One of them is increased and better span protections, another is streaming residuals. Streaming is taking over the industry and we have nothing to replace it with from a residual standpoint. So, all the things that we’ve fought for over decades are basically under threat. They stand a good chance of going away. You asked what the worst case scenario is? The worst case scenario is that all those gains go away.”
(Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.)
For more on Guggenheim’s position, here is the Why I’m Running For the WGA Board Statement he issued earlier this week.
For the past nineteen years, I have been a proud member of the Writers Guild of America alongside my wife and brothers. My youngest daughter was literally raised on the picket line as my wife and I pushed her in her stroller at only three weeks old. That said, I’ve been less involved in the Guild than I’d care to admit. Politics lie outside my comfort zone and I’ve long resisted raising my hand and risking being noticed.
But our Guild now faces issues that require all of us to get off the bench and get into the game. And so, I am suiting up.
Those issues are complex and manifold, and they are going to require sophisticated and nuanced solutions. The challenges we face are significant, but in trial there is opportunity. With the right leadership, we can not only clear the hurdles we currently face, we can — and we must — position our union for tomorrow, not merely resolve yesterday’s problems.
The expiration of the 2017 WGA Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement is just around the proverbial corner. The next negotiation with the AMPTP comes at a time when feature writers are being taken advantage of by one-step deals and television writers find their incomes depressed by short orders. Meanwhile, the proliferation of streaming services threatens the very existence of the residuals system that our union fought and sacrificed so much for. Make no mistake: These upcoming negotiations will chart the course of our union for the remainder of our careers.
And yet we are woefully unprepared for them.
There is no sign we have any intention of changing our normal strategy of threatening to strike and hoping for the best. No army would go to war with a single nuke in lieu of tanks and soldiers, yet that’s what we do every three years. We need a better strategy. To be clear: A strike threat is a powerful and critical source of leverage. But for too long, it’s been our only source of leverage and, consequently, our only tactic.
As long as I’ve been a member of the Guild, I’ve heard the message we can’t count on the DGA and SAG for support — that either our interests weren’t aligned or their memberships were weak — but perhaps the reason we haven’t worked with our sibling unions is that we haven’t tried particularly hard to. Although it’s generally accepted that the DGA just capitulates, there’s a contrary school of thought that posits they actually make worthy gains in the negotiations because they don’t go into them threatening to burn down the town. At the very least, it’s worth questioning the assumptions we’ve been operating with for the past two decades. After all doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of network television. Er, I mean insanity.
Of even greater concern is the fact that the AMPTP negotiations loom while we are already fighting a two-front war — litigation in state and federal court — against the ATA.
I’ve heard that the Agency Campaign has forged membership solidarity and makes us stronger going into these negotiations, but I have my doubts. For one thing, 95% of the membership voted in favor of the Agency Campaign to give our Negotiating Committee leverage to negotiate — only to see that leverage squandered by voluntarily withdrawing from the bargaining table.
To be clear: We must address the conflicts of interest inherent in packaging and affiliated production. But the belief that we can do so without negotiating with the ATA is naive at best. Equally naive is the notion that the two litigations which we are presently mired in will provide a way forward. I used to be a litigator and I saw firsthand the limitations of our legal system (and that’s before over two years of Trump appointments to the federal bench). Even in the rare instances when justice is done, it takes years to achieve. In the meantime, we are racking up legal fees that will rapidly number in the tens of millions of dollars with no end in sight.
As I said, the issues we face require nuanced solutions. Simply branding our representatives as racketeers isn’t nuanced. Our solidarity brought the agencies to the bargaining table. We need to return there post-haste and hammer out a deal that aligns our interests with that of our representatives. I don’t believe for a moment we aren’t smart enough to work out the negotiated solution the majority of the membership wanted.
At the same time, we have to re-enter these conversations with a focus on the future. The ill-fated negotiations focused almost exclusively on the sharing of backend profits — precisely at a time when backend profits are being eliminated. Don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of revenue sharing, but I’m also in favor of negotiating with an eye to the future so that we’re not just fighting yesterday’s battles.
So what does that future look like? As I said, the issues we face are complex and manifold, but among them we have to address the following:
SCRIPT PARITY — Staff Writers shouldn’t write for free. Full stop.
DIVERSITY — We need to do more than merely gather data or encourage diversity hiring, particularly at the upper levels of television staffs. Here’s one idea: Studios and platforms typically require a certain number of upper level writers on staffs. But if that money was redirected towards the lower levels, we could create many more jobs for diverse writers. And more diverse lower level writers means more diverse upper level writers in a matter of years.
SPAN PROTECTION — Simply put, we need to do much better. We’ve joined the issue with the AMPTP and gotten them to agree in principle, but now we need to craft truly meaningful span protection for television writers.
ANIMATION JURISDICTION — Animation is writing regardless of whether such writing is for a prime time television show. Period.
Although I have nineteen years in the Guild, I have had zero experience on committees or in a position of leadership. But consider me woke. I’m here now. And I’m ready to serve.