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Hollywood Writers Vs. Agents

Apr 14, 2019
Originally published on April 14, 2019 1:26 pm
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A Hollywood labor dispute got ugly this weekend between writers and their agents. The Writers Guild of America, the union that represents Hollywood writers, told them to fire their agents after negotiations between the two sides broke down Friday night. The fight is over packaging deals. That's where actors, directors and writers are bundled together for a fee. Keli Goff is a member of the Writers Guild. She's a writer and producer of the Netflix documentary "Reversing Roe." And I asked her why she thinks packaging disadvantages writers.

KELI GOFF: So, for instance, I'll give you an easy example. You're a writer. You go into negotiations on a project. And you say, you know, actually, they should be paying me more based on my experience, based on the fact that I'm a woman, for instance, and that I know they've paid male screenwriters a lot more previously for similar projects. If your agent has an interest as a producer on a project then their interest has to be to keep the costs low for the production. So they are not going to be inclined to hear ethical or other reasons for why you should be compensated more fairly. And there's a lot more profit for agencies to make as content creators and as our bosses than as those defending our interests against our bosses.

PFEIFFER: Could agents just be cut out of the process entirely? And could a manager or a lawyer be negotiating these deals for you?

GOFF: That's a great question, Sacha. And I think we're about to find out. So what I found from my friend whose sole income comes from screenwriting is there is such a culture of fear in Hollywood. I can speak out about this because I have other lines of income. For my friends who've only worked as screenwriters, many of them have told me their agents didn't get them their first job, their second job, their third job. And they really only stay signed with an agency because they're terrified of not saying they're with one. There's a fear that if you're a woman and a person of color, in particular, that if you talk openly about having bad experiences with agents, you will be deemed difficult, which we know that that's a word that tends to haunt women and people of color more than others. And now because we have been forced to fire them as part of our union membership, people now are going to go for possibly a month or three months without agents. And I think people are going to be in for a rude awakening. If people go for a few months without their agents and their careers actually go along just fine, I think a lot of people are going to have a tough sell being convinced to go back to relinquishing that 10 percent or more for someone who isn't actually pulling their weight.

PFEIFFER: But I remember, after the last major writers' strike, it's often attributed to helping give rise to reality television because Hollywood said, you don't want to write? Fine. We don't need writers. We'll just do reality TV. Any risk that there's now such a demand for content from Netflix and Amazon and other providers that you guys are going to be more easily replaceable than you realize?

GOFF: Well, I think, in this case, though, the agents are the ones that are actually replaceable. You know, when push comes to shove, even though reality television rose up during the last writers' strike, keep in mind, once writers came back, it gave rise to the golden age of Hollywood. What did we get? - "Game of Thrones," "Mad Men." What ended up happening is people realized, actually, you need writers to create content. It's just if the content's not going to be on CBS or ABC and other places that came up with "Survivor" or "The Bachelor" when we went on strike, then it gave rise to other mediums like Netflix.

PFEIFFER: You clearly feel very strongly about your position. But how much of a consensus issue do you think this is among writers?

GOFF: Well, I have noticed that there is total consensus pretty much among every writer I've ever talked to that the way agencies do business does not benefit the overwhelming majority of writers. There seems to be a consensus on that. And we also know that the - what I would say, as someone who, again, is relatively new to the business, is that, in general, I think there is less tolerance for the culture of fear that has run Hollywood all these years. I would say that the same thing that gave us Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves is what we're talking about right now, which is powerful people getting away with unethical and bullying behavior and, essentially, assuming that people are either so scared and desperate that they will put up with it. If you look at something like Weinstein, that kind of behavior can only go unchecked when you have people who are willing to enable. There should have been agents who were looking out for those actresses in those situations. But what happened in most situations - you had the agents who were willing to defend the power structure. And that's, essentially, what we're talking about here is we need something that checks the people in power from engaging in bad behavior. And those checks and balances are disappearing with packaging. And that's simply all we're trying to take a stand for.

PFEIFFER: Keli Goff is a television writer and producer. She fired her agent about a day ago. Keli, thank you.

GOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.