‘The Whole Town Thought We Would Lose’: WGA Chief on How Guild Prevailed in Agency Fight

Cynthia Littleton
·6-min read

WGA West president David Goodman knew taking on Hollywood’s largest talent agencies would be an uphill battle from the start.

But the veteran showrunner who led the guild’s campaign to reform its agency franchise rules was heartened at key junctures during the three-year fight by the strong sense of solidarity and unanimity among WGA members about the need to eliminate agency packaging fees and to clamp down on agency-affiliated production activity.

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On Friday, the WGA West and WGA East reached total victory, securing a franchise agreement with the last and largest agency holdout, WME. The deal puts an end to more than 18 months of costly litigation for the guild now that WME has settled the lawsuit that once included CAA and UTA as plaintiffs as well.

“To me, the greatest accomplishment is showing that the guilds took on a fight that pretty much the whole town thought we would lose,” Goodman told Variety. “Everybody from the start said the agencies are never going to give up packaging. They’ll give up representing writers rather than give in” to the guild’s new rules.

“I feel very proud of the membership,” Goodman said. “We wouldn’t have been able to have this success if they hadn’t shown such solidarity with the union and such an understanding of the importance of the things we were fighting for.”

Goodman acknowledged that the effort was anxiety-inducing for many members. His inbox was flooded with messages and questions from members for more than two years. The overwhelming majority, Goodman asserted, were supportive of the guild’s stance.

In 2018, the guild alerted the Association of Talent Agents that it intended to renegotiate its decades-old franchise agreement governing how talent agents can represent the more than 11,000 members of the WGA West and WGA East. Guild leadership had long wanted to take aim at what it believed were inherent conflicts-of-interest in the longstanding industry practice of agents collecting packaging fees from producers.

The writers unions were also concerned about the growth of production entities such as Endeavor Content and CAA’s Wiip, which were created in part to help maximize the value of each agency’s talent pipeline. But the WGA sounded the alarm about the danger of agents and producers working too closely together under the same roof.

Goodman, showrunner and executive producer of such series as “Family Guy” and “The Orville,” didn’t set out to tackle what would prove to be a historic union reform effort when he was first elected WGA West president in the fall of 2017. But he knew it was an issue of importance to leadership, and there was a groundswell of concern about packaging problems among members who were feeling the ups and downs of the Peak TV production boom.

“The things that we said really rang true for a lot of members — even for those who had very good relationships with their agents,” Goodman said. “They understood the agency system as it was then constituted was not in their best interest.”

The guild held fitful negotiations with the ATA in the spring of 2019. The process got off to a rocky start because the agency representatives “refused to legitimize anything we were saying,” he said. “They refused to acknowledge that we had a point. They didn’t expect writers to fire them and that they would stay fired.”

By April, the WGA arranged a mass termination process that saw more than 7,000 writers fire their agents in a matter of days. That underscored the seriousness of the guild’s resolve.

At the time, Goodman heard over and over from industry insiders that writers would eventually choose to stick with agents rather than the union. “All those things ended up not being true,” he said. “What was true was what we said at the beginning: these conflicts of interest have to be addressed if agents are to properly represent us. The membership understood.”

The only time Goodman recalled feeling uncertainty himself was around the time he went up for re-election in the fall of 2019. He faced opposition from a candidate, Phyllis Nagy, who was critical of the guild’s handling of the agency situation.

“I was uncertain going in to my re-election campaign,” Goodman admitted. “I did feel we had an overwhelming majority of members on our side but I wasn’t sure.” The election results dispelled any doubts, as Goodman received more than 75% of the vote.

As small and medium-sized agencies began to sign the guild’s new agreement in the fall and early 2020, the focus turned to the Big Four agencies. Around this time, word spread that hundreds of writers were secretly working with agents on an informal basis.

“That period was difficult,” he said. But he disputed the anecdotal reports stemming from writers and agency sources that stealth representation efforts were happening. Goodman contacted some members directly and found that they were adhering to the spirit of the guild’s directive, which allowed for contact for writers under existing deals negotiated by representatives prior to termination.

“When I contacted those members who were working with their agent, it was as a director or under a previous deal that the agency had negotiated. From what I gathered, everybody was pretty clear about what the rules were,” Goodman said. “If lots and lots of members were breaking the rules, the agencies wouldn’t have come to the table.”

UTA, which previously represented Goodman, was the first of the Big Four to sign.

In Goodman’s view, the litigation and other agita could have been spared if agency negotiators had shared the sentiment expressed by WME TV chief Rick Rosen on Feb. 5 in the memo Rosen sent to staffers after announcing the settlement. Rosen acknowledged that the long standoff “forced us to take a hard look at who we represent and how best to serve them, ensuring that our interests and goals are clearly aligned.”

Goodman said he “loved” the tone of the note.

“I really appreciated what he wrote, which was we’ve got to take stock here and look at what are we doing wrong,” he said.

As he heads into the final six months of his second term, Goodman said the culmination of the agency campaign puts the union on strong footing for its next projects, which includes master contract negotiations in 2023.

“The biggest feeling coming out of this is pride at what this union can do when it puts its collective mind to a task,” he said. “That’s pretty amazing. It’s a great testimony to the power of unions.”

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