On Monday afternoon, the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents met briefly in an effort to work through an ongoing heated dispute over pay inequality for writers. Monday’s meeting was meant to get closer to a resolution on one particular issue: talent packaging, a shady practice in which agencies represent clients on either side of a negotiation and reap in a profit percentage from both. Although the meeting ultimately went nowhere, by the end of the day, the WGA found a fierce advocate on the topic in David Simon.
In a bravura blog post, the Wire creator and reliably combustible curmudgeon ripped into the ATA for its packaging practices, with the keen eye for a scam and colorful language of someone who worked for years as a police reporter before becoming a Hollywood writer.
“Packaging is a lie. It is theft. It is fraud,” he writes, before lowering the boom. “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.”
In order to make his case, Simon tells a long and winding story about the maneuvers his agents pulled while negotiating the sale of his first TV series, Homicide: Life on the Street, in the early ’90s, and how he came to find out about it a decade later. He even drops names of those involved wherever possible, “because I still have a reportorial soul and a journalistic God resides in the details.”
The story starts with Simon’s hastily procured literary agent teaming up with CAA to shop around the film rights for the author’s first book, Homicide. This lit agent wanted to keep the entire 15% of what he was already making from Simon, and have the author pony up an additional 10% of his profits for CAA. After getting advice from his publisher, Simon insisted on the agent splitting his 15% with CAA, a customary arrangement for anyone not attending their first rodeo.
The project ended up sitting around for months without getting sold, until Simon eventually recommended approaching director Barry Levinson, a fellow Baltimore resident, like Simon, who eventually did buy the rights to Homicide. Simon’s end of the deal seemed a little light, but after some nudging from the author, Simon’s agent reluctantly negotiated for a higher per-episode royalty. Sounds fair enough, right?
From here, though, the story advances to the early-2000s, when Simon was in the process of working out his deal with HBO for The Wire. It was at this point that his TV agent at CAA, Jeff Jacobs, approached him about a package deal, similar to what happened with Homicide. It was the first he ever heard about a package deal for his previous show.
“Jake, do you mean to say that you represented me, a pissant police reporter from Baltimore in a head-on negotiation with one of Hollywood’s A-list directors and you also represented the director?” Simon recalls asking, in his post. “You represented both sides in the sale of my book and when the low-ball offer came to me, Matt fucking Snyder acted like it was the only offer I might ever get? Is that what you motherfuckers did?”
Throughout the rest of his post, which is well worth reading in its entirety, Simon makes a concrete case for how packaging is akin to racketeering, and how this practice has helped depress salaries and benefits across the entertainment industry. He wants to file a suit against the Association of Talent Agencies, and each of the so-called Big Four agencies themselves, to get a new code of conduct that abandons the practice of packaging. He then ends the fiery piece with a Simonian show of how just how far he would prefer to go on behalf of the WGA.
“For that matter, I’m for riding around Bel Air and Westwood and Santa Monica in a rental car, running up in the driveways of these grifting motherfuckers and slashing tires. I’ve got that much contempt for this level of organized theft and for the tone-deaf defense of it by the ATA.”
Disclosure: Fast Company editorial staff is in the process of unionizing and is represented by the Writers Guild of America-East.