Gavin Polone, the author of the post below, is a film and TV producer and a talent manager as well as a former agent. Here he is at his insightful and provocative best:
by Gavin Polone
Over the past two weeks, the question I’ve been asked most is, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” What’s surprising is that the second-most-asked question has been, “What do you think is going to happen with this whole WGA vs. the agents fight over TV packages?”
It’s not only surprising that people care about this esoteric question of dealmaking but also — and more importantly — that the Writers Guild of America has chosen to dig in so hard over a less tangible, but still important, issue to their membership.
In the past, the guild has made its stand on such things as health care and residuals, which is to be expected, as those items are understood by all and immediately affect the economic and personal well-being of the recipients. Anyone to whom I try and explain what package fees are, and why they are controversial, usually offers me a blank look of incomprehension in return. Not the kind of thing that rouses the troops to throw themselves into battle; and yet it has. In this fight, the writers are taking a stance against the clear conflict present when agents, who are supposed to be representing the interests of their clients, are receiving separate and direct payments from studios on the projects for which they are negotiating on behalf of those same clients who are working on those same projects.
The code of conduct that the WGA is trying to force the Association of Talent Agents to sign would eliminate these conflicts, thereby affording the writers greater peace of mind that the negotiations for their work are being handled at arm’s length and with assurance that they are receiving a true free-market rate for their services.
The agents see the issue differently … or, I should say, they have a counterargument: that they are important to the process of making entertainment and therefore deserving of these large fees; that they would always act in the best interests of their clients, irrespective of how they are compensated; and that their getting package fees is a big win for clients, who then don’t have to pay the standard 10 percent commissions on those packaged projects. In my experience as an agent, manager and producer, none of that is factually nor arithmetically true. I would have greater respect for agents if they were to offer a more honest rejoinder along the lines of:
“Package fees should be allowed because they are a way for us to make more money in the short-run (because Teslas, ski houses and scamming your kid into the Ivy League are fucking expensive) and way more money in the long run, because the value of a business that is based on talent relationships and goodwill is far less than one that owns large revenue streams that continue to flow for decades. Further, if we leverage our relationships with our clients into not only owning parts of movies and TV but actually financing and producing movies and TV, we can then borrow against the assets we possess and buy other businesses and build media conglomerates and go public, or sell to private equity, and be super, super rich and get out of the business of representing talent altogether, which would be great because we don’t want to be servants to clients anymore but would rather have those clients serve us. And if you think we’re going to stop there, then you’re as much of a rube as you were when you thought the package fee was something we got in exchange for not producing movies and TV and that we would be satisfied with those high fees alone and not try to get even more. Yes, we want the package and the right to produce and own movies and TV, but eventually we’ll start buying Broadway theaters and booking our clients’ plays into them, and our actors will star and our directors will direct. And we’ll build our own streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, to show the movies and TV we make. And we’ll start book publishing houses and record companies and promote our own concert tours and construct our own theme parks and set up our own sports leagues and a bunch of other shit that we haven’t had the headspace to think of yet because those fucking writers call us on the phone all the time asking us stupid shit like ‘When will we get paid!!!!‘ “