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….