By DAVID NG | MAY 08, 2019 | 6:30 AM
When Hollywood writers took the unprecedented step of firing their talent agents last month — a collective action intended to dissuade agencies from practices the Writers’ Guild sees as conflicts of interest — the move sent a jolt of uncertainty through the entertainment industry.
The dispute came in the midst of TV staffing season, when network shows do the bulk of their hiring for writers. How would writers find jobs without their agents, who are supposed to advocate on their behalf?
But in the three weeks since the termination notices went out, many showrunners and writers have found creative ways to work around the dispute.
Showrunners said they are relying primarily on their professional networks and on social media to staff their shows this season. Some said it has been remarkably easy to find writers without the added step of going through an agent.
Social media has been helpful in staffing the CW’s supernatural series “Legacies,” said show creator Julie Plec. She said her team was recently looking to fill a writer slot and searched Twitter using the term #WGAStaffingBoost — a hashtag created last month by TV writer LaToya Morgan to provide visibility to employable writers during the agency standoff.
Writers of varying levels of experience have posted using the hashtag.
I’ve written on the last 3 seasons of the critically acclaimed Netflix show ‘BoJack Horseman,’” wrote Alison Tafel. “I’ve got samples.” Cusi Cram, a playwright and TV writer, recently posted: “I’ve written on shows for Showtime, Amazon, and PBS. I love the darkly comic and have a knack for creating absurd yet emotionally grounded stories.”
The “Legacies” team found a writer on Twitter whose writing sample and experience they thought made her a good fit. They brought her in for an interview and eventually hired her.
“Staffing season is never fun and always filled with chaos,” said Plec. “This year, however, as a result of writers having to do more self-advocacy, there’s been a spirit of generosity and support in the air that has been really refreshing.”
Network staffing typically takes place during roughly the first six months of the year as shows come up for renewal. The busiest hiring usually occurs from May through mid-June as pilots get picked up for series order and more renewals come through.
But this staffing season is unlike any in recent memory. The Writers Guild of America has declared war against talent agencies over practices that the guild believes enrich agencies while putting the needs of clients second. These include the aggressive move by agencies into TV and movie production, which could create conflicts of interest if a writer is both employed and represented by an agency.
So far, more than 7,000 guild members of the 8,000 or so who have agents have fired them. The WGA has also sued the big four Hollywood talent agencies — WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners — over packaging, a longstanding practice through which an agency is paid fees for assembling talent on a project. Writers say that agencies have prioritized packaging over traditional client representation.
Writers said the feud with agents has exposed what was until now an open secret in Hollywood: Many experienced writers already rely on interpersonal connections, rather than agents, to find jobs.
“Most of us don’t get jobs from our agents,” said a showrunner for a drama series on a major cable network who wasn’t authorized to speak about the dispute.
Staffing the writers’ room for the upcoming season has involved calling friends and fellow writers for recommendations, she said.
“People say you have to have an agent,” said a writer and producer for a major streaming series who also wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “They feel like they have to have an agent because it’s an image thing. But at the end of the day, a lot of writers get their own jobs and the agents step in and commission it.”
Writers said they are relying on their other representation to submit scripts to studios. “People are just using their managers and lawyers and they’re doing just fine,” said the streaming series writer-producer.
But writers acknowledged that their fight with agencies disadvantages one group among them — inexperienced writers who are relatively new to Hollywood.
For a new writer with a short resume, agents have traditionally helped secure that crucial first or second job. If a respected agent vouches for a new voice, hiring managers take notice. Otherwise it can be hard to get on a showrunner’s radar. And early on in a career, agents are sometimes a writer’s only cheerleader.
With their agents out of the picture for the time being, those neophytes are now finding themselves in a tough position of trying to make a living without the help of their biggest boosters.
To help these writers, the WGA has developed an online staffing submission system that is designed to bring together writers and showrunners in what is shaping up as a kind of ZipRecruiter for Hollywood writers.
The system, which launched last month, allows guild members to submit material for shows that have posted openings on the site. So far, about 90 shows have posted openings on the site, with 2,000 writers making about 4,000 submissions, according to the guild. Most of the shows using the site are network series, with some cable and streaming series as well.
This week, the WGA opened the system to its associate members — typically younger, less experienced writers with fewer credits to their name. Guild members are able to make as many as three submissions.
“Our goal is to give everyone a chance to be read,” said Charles Slocum, the guild’s assistant executive director.
However, it’s not clear if the WGA site is delivering jobs since the guild has released only submission figures. The Times reached out and spoke independently to six writers, all of whom said they haven’t used the WGA’s site and instead were relying on their own networks and social media.
While social media has become a useful tool for writers in an agentless world, it also presents challenges to showrunners who are looking to staff their shows. The abundance of submissions via Twitter and other platforms has landed showrunners in an avalanche of unsolicited material as writers of all levels promote themselves.
“We’re in a Wild West situation,” said Javi Grillo-Marxuach, a writer and co-executive producer on Netflix’s fantasy series “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” Last month, he started the Twitter hashtag #solidaritychallenge to give fellow writers a career lift in the wake of the mass firing of agents.
“We are all scrambling to find solutions in the short term to fill the gap. Shows have to be written. The business has to continue.”
He said showrunners are relying on Twitter recommendations from other showrunners or producers, as opposed to unsolicited pitches from writers. “If I recommend someone, another upper-level person may feel that person has been reasonably vetted.”
The sentiment has been voiced by a number of prominent showrunners, including Brian Koppelman, the co-creator and showrunner of Showtime’s “Billions.”
“You have to get someone I respect to recommend you to me. Could be a showrunner you’ve worked w/ before. Or a working writer or producer,” he posted on Twitter.
Writers said their goal isn’t necessarily to replace agents in the long term.
“Like all of us, I am hopeful that the guild and the [agents] will find their way to harmony,” said Plec, the “Legacies” showrunner.
“But in the interim, even though it feels a bit like the Wild, Wild West, it’s working. And more importantly, I have enjoyed the process for once. Being able to read new voices and help to amplify others has been a real thrill amidst the stress of this period we’re in.”
Writers said they are still feeling their way through an unprecedented situation.
“Is it better than having an agent? Probably not. It’s nice to have an agent,” said Grillo-Marxuach.
“But it’s admirable how well this writing community is coming together when we usually see each other as competitors.”