Writer-Creator of ‘The Wire,’ David Simon, Speaks Out About What’s Wrong with Agency Packaging

Yeppers, kids, this is another post derived from the current contretemps between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agencies.

We’re bringing it to you because you and all of us at TVWriter™ are writers with a huge stake in the outcome of this negotiation. Read and learn, and it’s okay with us if, while learning, you also get angry. David Simon sure as hell is:

“But I’m not a lawyer. I’m an agent.”
by David Simon

Just over a quarter century ago, when I was a young scribbler traipsing around the metro desk of the Baltimore Sun, I had an early opportunity to learn a lesson about money, about ethics, about capitalism and, in particular, about the American entertainment industry. And Dorothy Simon, she raised no fools. I only needed to learn it once.

I learned about something called “packaging.”

And now, finally, my apostasy from newspapering having delivered me from Baltimore realities to film-set make-believe, I am suprised and delighted that many of the fellow scribblers with whom I share a labor union have at last acquired the same hard, ugly lesson:

Packaging is a lie. It is theft. It is fraud. In the hands of the right U.S. Attorney, it might even be prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering. It’s that fucking ugly.

For those of you not in the film and television world, there is no shame in tuning out right now because at its core, the argument over packaging now ongoing between film and television writers and their agents is effectively an argument over an embarrassment of riches. The American entertainment industry is seemingly recession-proof and television writing, specifically, is such a growth industry nowadays that even good and great novelists must be ordered back to their prose manuscripts by book editors for whom the term “showrunner” has become an affront. A lot of people are making good money writing television drama. And so, this fresh argument is about who is making more of that money, and above all, where the greatest benefits accrue.  If you have no skin in the game, I think it reasonable, even prudent, to deliver a no-fucks-to-give exhale and proceed elsewhere.

If, on the other hand, you are my fellow brother or sister in the Writers Guild of America — East or West, it matters not when we stand in solidarity — or conversely, if you are a grasping, fuckfailing greedhead with the Association of Talent Agents, then you might wanna hang around for this:

Here is the story of how as a novice to this industry, I was grifted by my agents and how I learned everything I ever needed to know about packaging.  And here is why I am a solid yes-vote on anything my union puts before me that attacks the incredible ethical affront of this paradigm. Packaging is a racket. It’s corrupt. It is without any basis in either integrity or honor. This little narrative will make that clear. And because I still have a reportorial soul and a journalistic God resides in the details, I will name a name wherever I can.

*            *           *

To begin, I wrote a book. It was a non-fiction account of a year I spent with a shift of homicide detectives in Baltimore, a city ripe with violence and miscalculation. Published in 1991, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” was repped by my literary agent at the time, an independent attorney who I found because his other clients included some other ink-stained newspaper reporters. Late in 1987, the Baltimore Police Department agreed to let me into its homicide unit for a year beginning that January, so I needed to quicly acquire an agent to sell the project to a publishing house and secure an advance on which to live while I took a leave-of-absence from my newspaper. This agent — and damn, I wish I could name the goniff, but I later signed a cash settlement that said I wouldn’t — was the first name that came to me. I did not shop around; I was in a hurry.  My bad.

Three years later, with the book ready to publish, this shyster suggested to me that he was entirely capable of going to Hollywood with it for a sale of the dramatic rights. And me, knowing less than a bag of taters about Hollywood, was ready to agree until my book editor, the worthy John Sterling, then helming the Houghton Mifflin publishing house, told me in no uncertain terms that this was a mistake.

It was customary, John explained, for even the best literary agents to pair with a colleague at one of the bigger entertainment agencies and split the commission.  My literary agent would give up half of his 15 percent to the other agency, but he would gain the expertise of an organization with the connections to move the property around and find the right eyeballs in the film and television industry. So I called my agent back and insisted….

Read it all at DAVIDSIMON.COM

Gerry Conway on Today’s Headlines (and the Writing Thereof)

by Gerry Conway

Let’s take a moment to think about how unusual it is that this balls-related headline from a major national magazine isn’t all that unusual these days.

Anyone who’s heard me crack wise inappropriately knows I’m no stranger to jokes my mother would have thought were in terrible “bad taste,” so I’m not saying I’m shocked or find balls-related humor offensive. On the contrary, I think the image conjured by that headline is hilarious. But seriously…can you imagine the Vanity Fair of ten years ago, or even five years ago, running a headline like that on its online site?

It’s probably a generational thing, but as a culture we seem far more comfortable with the kind of humor my parents would have been horrified by and my generation would have enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. Where I and my peers would have smirked, today’s audience nods knowingly or just smiles. Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee regularly use the kind of double-entendres David Letterman and Jay Leno would barely have hinted at. Vanity Fair references balls in a headline.

I don’t disapprove. I just want to point out we’ve come a considerable distance in what we consider appropriate public humor. Maybe “Bridesmaids” was the tipping point. Who knows? Cultural historians of the future will no doubt find the moment. Personally I’m glad. It makes me seem less like a tasteless clod when I make a joke in bad taste and more like I’m surfing the cultural zeitgeist.

Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.

Cable and Satellite TV Plunge Continues

Another acknowledgement that online streaming is the future of entertainment. Dunno about you, but we love it when an a tech site gets all excited about the same things that send us over the top:

by Jon Brodkin

Cord cutting continued at a steady rate in 2018, as cable and satellite TV providers in the United States lost more than 3 million video subscribers, a new report from Leichtman Research Group said.

Satellite TV services were hit especially hard. AT&T-owned DirecTV lost 1.24 million subscribers and finished 2018 with 19.2 million subscribers. Meanwhile, Dish lost 1.13 million subscribers and ended 2018 with 9.9 million. The combined DirecTV and Dish losses of 2.36 million customers in 2018 was up from the companies’ combined loss of 1.55 million in 2017.

The top cable companies—Comcast, Charter, Cox, Altice, Mediacom, and Cable One—lost a combined 910,000 TV subscribers in 2018, up from a net loss of 660,000 in 2017. The six companies had a total of 47 million TV subscribers at the end of 2018.

DirecTV and Dish made up some of their subscriber losses by nudging customers toward the online versions of their services. DirecTV Now—AT&T’s online version of DirecTV—gained 436,000 subscribers in 2018 to move up to a total of 1.59 million. Dish-owned Sling TV gained 205,000 customers, achieving a total of 2.42 million. Despite being delivered over the Internet, both DirecTV Now and Sling TV are linear pay-TV services that are similar in function to traditional cable and satellite TV.

The Leichtman tally also includes TV services offered by large phone companies, namely Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, and Frontier. These three services lost a combined 244,000 TV subscribers in 2018, dropping to 8.99 million total, despite U-verse gaining 47,000….

Read it all at ARSTECHNICA.COM

John Ostrander: World Making 101 for Writers

by John Ostrander

As a writer in fantastic fiction, I sometimes have to create a setting, an environment in which the action takes place – a world. GrimJack, for example, is mainly set in Cynosure, a pandimensional city where the multiverse meets. Cross the street and you may be in a different dimension. Guns work here, magic works there, a sword and a bad attitude works most everywhere. I didn’t create Cynosure; Peter B. Gillis did that in the first WARP special at First Comics. I did, however, use it extensively and defined it.

World making can be fun, frustrating, tedious, exhausting, and a host of other adjectives. Mostly fun. The setting winds up being a character itself in the story; Gotham City is an important supporting character in Batman stories. The Dark Knight really works best against it as a backdrop. When Anton Furst designed the set and look of Gotham for the first Michael Keaton-Tim Burton Batman movie, I remember one thing that was said about the design is that Furst created a Gotham against which a man dressed as a bat looked like he belonged. You can’t stick the Batman in Peoria and make it look right.

Even if it’s the so-called “real world”, you need to develop a version of it. Raymond Chandler’s seedy L.A. helped define not only his detective, Philip Marlowe, but a lot of the genre. Sherlock Holmes works best in the fog shrouded streets of London in the late 1800s. (Yes, I’ve seen the versions of Holmes set in modern day; clever but not the same IMO.) Star Wars is not set in one city but a whole galaxy and it has a certain look and feel. The places, the ships, the uniforms all have to look as if they belonged there. The Black Panther movie won as Oscar for the design and look of Wakanda.

That requires some thought and usually some research. One of my maxims is that the best fantasy is one that has one foot firmly set in reality. You want it to feel real to the reader/viewer. It requires thinking a concept through, looking at the details, thinking of the ramifications of a detail.

Let’s play with this a bit. For instance, as a premise let’s assume that climate change is real. I’m not saying that you have to accept that it is, in fact, real. Just as a premise for our fictional setting. For example, what has caused the world of Mad Max is never really specified but climate change could easily be the cause, IMO.

So let’s jump 10, 20, 100 years and try to imagine that future as a backdrop for whatever story it is that we want to tell.

For example, the ice caps are melting and the sea levels are rising. What are the ramifications of that? Certainly coastal flooding. How much? Depends on who you ask but it seems reasonable to assume that parts of Manhattan are gone. Lots of Florida –Disneyworld, for example. I wonder if Mickey floats. Or over at Universal theme parks – the Wizarding World of Harry Potter might get less magical under a few feet of seawater.

In the Mid Atlantic states – Washington D.C. would get real wet. It’s built on a swamp after all. (Some might argue that drowning Washington is not necessarily a bad idea). Norfolk VA is, at the moment, a major base for the U.S. fleet. If Norfolk goes under water, you lose not only the base but the housing for all the sailors and their dependents.

This rise in the levels of the ocean doesn’t happen all at once; it grows incrementally. It gives time for people to adapt. In theory. But there are other effects. We’ve seen how hurricanes have gotten stronger. We saw what happened to New York City, especially Manhattan, with Hurricane Sandy. The resultant storm surge flooded the area, drowning subways and tunnels. What if that wasn’t a one time event? What if it was every time a hurricane hit? Remember, this is all speculation, a possible premise for a setting against which to tell a story.

Salt water can invade aquifers, contaminating freshwater that humans, animals, and crops depend on. That’s gotta hurt. We have a lot of toxic dumps and garbage dumps and sewage plants; what happens when/if they are flooded?

Large groups of people from the East Coast become refugees to other parts of the country. Do the other states take them in? How many can they take in? What effect does that have the local economy? What effect does it have on the national economy?  There are three major airports in the NYC area; can they still operate? Are they abandoned? What effect does that have on the airline industry? Down in Texas, Houston is flooded. What effect does that have on oil production in the Gulf? Can the United States stay united or does it collapse and break into sectional countries, each with its own laws and customs?

This is just a sample of the sort of questions I wind up asking myself as a writer as I explore a concept and the consequences and ramifications of any given premise. There are many ways you can interpret the premise as well; there’s the Mad Max model we talked about before or you could be more hopeful; your story might be how mankind comes together and finds a way to delay and/or reverse the process, the start of terraforming. It could be the setting of a Walking Dead type scenario, where a group of survivors journey on, trying to find a haven. All these stories could come from the same basic background concept; it can be adapted to fit the story that you might want to tell. There’s no one right way to approach the premise.

What your story would need to be is consistent with itself and believable even if it seems outlandish. Most of all, you should have fun. If you don’t enjoy the process, the reader won’t enjoy the result.

So go on – make up a world. Your world.

John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but now John’s back with a new column at a new blog, PopCultureSquad, where this piece first appeared (before Christmas even, but we’ve been on a break so you get to relive the holiday now). You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE

WGA vs.Association of Talent Agencies. How can an agency develop careers if quarterly profit is its major goal?

Some scary info from the WGA, pertinent to the current writer-talent agency dispute negotiation:

Talent Agencies “for sale”
via the WGA

In recent years, WME and CAA have transformed from partner-owned talent agencies into businesses that are majority-owned by private equity funds and other outside investors. This change has drawn these agencies so far away from the fundamentals of the agency business that they no longer act as proper fiduciaries for their clients.

Why do we say that? Because the investors in these agencies, who have placed billions of dollars at risk, have only one interest – to see their investments pay off in profits of similar proportion. And the agencies themselves, once sworn to serve their writer clients, now serve the interest of those investors first.

How have they done that? By engaging in a series of conflicted practices that have benefited the agencies and progressively abandoned their clients. You can’t attract billions of dollars in investment and make billions in profit off the 10% commission business. The agency model that served writers and other talent well just isn’t enough to generate stratospheric wealth for our representatives.

The packaging fee model is a different story. WME and CAA have used the lucrative cash flow that packaging fees generate – and their exclusive access to talent – to change the game.

Based on the available information, this is what we know:

During this decade more than $3 billion has been invested into the three largest agencies. Over $440 million has been invested into CAA. At WME, a total of $2.5 billion. In August 2018, UTA received a $200 million investment.

According to WGA estimates, TPG’s investment in CAA had more than tripled in value by mid-2017. Meanwhile, Silver Lake Partners’ $750 million investment in WME had doubled in value to almost $1.5 billion by mid-2016.

The influx of capital has also provided agency executives with hundreds of millions in payouts, and they still have ownership stakes. At CAA, the top four agents received at least $250 million in payouts from the sale to private equity. WME management, including Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, retains a significant stake in the company, a stake which is now worth well over $1 billion. 

That is what the agencies have made. At the same time, studio profits have doubled to over $50 billion a year. And writer salaries dropped 23% in a two-year period.

The agencies, whose principle job is to protect writers’ above-scale income, have failed utterly in that – failed to take on the abuse of options and exclusivity clauses – failed to combat the corrosive impact of span on television writers’ pay – failed to protect screenwriters from late pay and free work. They have left all of that to the Guild.

The agencies have, instead, engaged in a kickback scheme, illegal under federal law. That’s what packaging fees are. And let’s be clear, everybody in the entertainment business knows it: the smaller agencies that fight to survive in a business dominated by a four-firm oligopoly, the studios who pay the ransom, the managers and lawyers. Virtually everyone has had to accommodate what the major agencies do. Some have even learned how to get their share of the loot.

And now those agencies that have failed to protect writers – even in deals made with outside studios, who are our negotiating adversaries – ask us to believe that they will protect us when they negotiate for us against their affiliated studios.

That is the next twist in this story.  In order to generate even more outside investment and reap even greater profits for those investors and for themselves,  major agencies are now moving into content ownership and production.

WME and CAA claim they are doing this to provide more opportunity for their writer clients and to make better deals for writers than other studios can offer. And they may, for a time, offer marquee deals. The loss leader is as old as sales itself. But in the long run, “affiliated studios” are an even greater conflict than packaging fees.

When our agents are studios – when they employ us – their interests are in direct opposition to ours. These agency/studios generate wealth for their investors (and themselves) by maximizing profits and minimizing costs. Our salaries are one of those costs. When costs and net profits trade off, net profits wins. When the interests of multibillion-dollar investors and individual writers are at odds, multibillion-dollar investors win.

The agency half of the agency/studio partnership is important to CAA and WME because it provides the only competitive advantage they have over other studios, which is access to talent. But, if successful, it is the studio side of the partnership that will drive a massive return on investment. The studios – Endeavor Content and Wiip – will have the negotiating leverage over what should then rightly be called their “affiliated agencies.”

And our agents now ask us to believe, having rolled over on us even in what appeared as fair, arms-length negotiations with outside studios, that they will now protect us against their partners? Who wants to take that bet today – or in ten years’ time?

The influx of outside capital into the agency business has completed the transformation of our agencies from businesses dedicated to maximizing our revenue to businesses dedicated to maximizing their own. It is a breach of their fiduciary duty to us and a violation of law. It has forced the Writers Guild of America to propose new terms for agency representation in order to realign agencies’ interests with those of their clients and ensure that client interests come first – as is required by law.

It’s time for change, and change can be hard, but practices that diminish our worth and our livelihoods cannot be allowed to stand. Agents unwilling to represent writers will have to find another line of work but the fact is, despite continuing to call themselves “agents,” that’s exactly what they’ve already done.

To learn more about how agencies have leveraged their access to Hollywood talent to systematize conflicts of interest and attract billions in investments from private equity firms and outside investors, read the WGA’s latest report, Agencies For Sale, linked here.

In Solidarity,

WGA-Agency Agreement Negotiating Committee

Chris Keyser, Co-Chair
David Shore, Co-Chair
Meredith Stiehm, Co-Chair
Lucy Alibar
John August
Angelina Burnett
Zoanne Clack
Kate Erickson
Jonathan Fernandez
Travon Free
Ashley Gable
Deric A. Hughes
Chip Johannessen
Michele Mulroney
Michael Schur
Tracey Scott Wilson
Betsy Thomas
Patric M. Verrone
Nicole Yorkin
David A. Goodman, President WGAW, ex-officio
Marjorie David, Vice President WGAW, ex-officio
Aaron Mendelsohn, Secretary-Treasurer WGAW, ex-officio
Beau Willimon, President WGAE, ex-officio
Jeremy Pikser, Vice President WGAE, ex-officio
Bob Schneider, Secretary-Treasurer WGAE, ex-officio