Saturday was TV writer Ben Blacker‘s birthday. To celebrate, he spent it reading scripts from other writers who, like him, had just fired their agents.
“It didn’t feel like a chore; it felt really exciting,” says Blacker, the host of the Writers Panel podcast, whose credits include Supernatural and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. “I only wish I had a show to staff.”
Blacker is one of a number of Writers Guild of America (WGA) members who have reacted to the breakdown in contract negotiations between the WGA and the major Hollywood talent agencies by stepping up to help TV writers who suddenly find themselves without an agent at the same time broadcast TV networks create their fall slates of new shows and hire writers. It is known colloquially as staffing season.
On Friday, when the major talent agencies failed to adopt the WGA’s new code of conduct, a wave of Hollywood TV and screenwriters fired their agents, as per the demand of the WGA. But in the aftermath of the schism, the message across social media was one of solidarity among scribes. Over the weekend, many writers Tweeted photos of their signed termination letters that the guild sent to its members, along with the hashtag #IStandWithTheWGA, which by Saturday was trending. Among the high-profile names who severed ties with their representatives are Patton Oswalt, David Simon, Shawn Ryan, Michael Schur, and Amy Berg.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) April 13, 2019
Agents generally play a role in that staffing process by recommending writers to showrunners, who are assembling writers’ rooms for a show. “A good agent will advocate for their client,” Blacker says. “They’ll make sure a sample script doesn’t just get sent in and sit in a pile. They’ll check in over time, and if a showrunner has a relationship with an agent and trusts them, they can move those scripts to the top of the pile.”
But with agents suddenly out of the equation, writers like Blacker are stepping up to promote writers, particularly lower-level scribes who are less known and don’t have extensive IMDB pages to vouch for them. On Friday, Blacker announced on Twitter that writers looking for work should email him scripts to read. By Monday, he’d gotten through about a dozen and had Tweeted out praise like this for the ones he liked: “DRAMA SHOWRUNNERS: Dammit, hire @nevslin. He’s got that Lost-vibe, that twists-and-turns with confidence that every network puzzle drama needs. His pilot, “33,” had me flipping pages faster than I could read. He gets structure, tone, plot. Got Noah on TRIANGLE. attn @ABCStudios.”
He’s also sent scripts directly to some showrunners working on shows that he thought the writer would be a good fit for.
“Relationships are such a key part of this business,” Blacker says. “And so often, especially for a newer, lower-level writer, having a more established writer say, ‘I’ve read this person. I vouch for this script. He or she would be a good fit for X kind of show,’ goes a long way for advocating for people who wouldn’t be advocated for during this time.”
Blacker got the idea for the Twitter support system from Javi Grillo-Marxuach, a Lost producer who announced a few weeks ago on Twitter that he was going to read scripts and promote writers through what he dubbed the #wgasolidaritychallenge. “I may not be staffing a show,” Grillo-Marxuach tweeted, “but I am a senior-level writer/producer, and all of us need us to step up, regardless of how the negotiations go. so here’s what I am going to do, for the foreseeable future.” He asked for submissions and said he’d promote on writer every Monday on Twitter.
A number of other writers, like Blacker, have joined the cause. LaToya Morgan (Shameless, Parenthood) started her own hashtag, #WGAStaffingBoost.” Last Wednesday, she tweeted: “Scribes! If you’re a writer looking to staff this season, I want to help you out. Reply with a few sentences about what kind of writer you are & why showrunners should give you a shot.”
Liz Alper (The Rookie, Hawaii Five-0) has created a spreadsheet accessible on Twitter where she logs the names of writers, their scripts, and which writers are recommending them.
“It’s really easy advocating for someone who is not yourselves,” Blacker says. “I think for writers, it’s usually hard to speak up.”
#WGASolidarityChallenge coverage edition. I limited this to UPPER LEVEL RECS who responded to submitted material (not just personal references) because there are SO many writers participating!
DM me with corrections. If I missed a UL rec, lemme know! https://t.co/hqjsy9G2YX
— Liz Alper (@LizAlps) April 11, 2019
Friday’s breakdown was the culmination of several months of an antagonistic negotiation process between the agencies and the WGA, which is trying to end the decades-long practice of “packaging” TV shows and movies–whereby an agency builds a TV or film project using its own (or some of its own) clients, and then receives a packaging fee on those projects. The guild also claims that major agencies like CAA and WME are primarily focused on serving their investment partners as opposed to their talent.
The WGA had given the agencies until Friday to adopt its new Code of Conduct, which eliminates packaging fees and agencies’ ownership in production companies. None of the major agencies signed on, though by Saturday more than 40 smaller boutique agencies had agreed to the terms.
Soon after the order went out for writers to fire their agents, Karen Stuart, executive director of the Association of Talent Agents (ATA), said: “The WGA leadership today declared a pathway for compromise doesn’t exist. Agencies have been committed to reaching an agreement with the WGA but, despite our best efforts, today’s outcome was driven by the Guild’s predetermined course for chaos.”
WGA West president David Goodman responded to the ATA on Friday, saying, “We are willing to continue meeting with you when you provide a proposal that truly addresses our expressed concerns, but our Friday deadline has arrived and we are moving forward with the implementation of our Code of Conduct and the enforcement of our WGA Working Rule 23.”
Asked how he felt about his agentless foreseeable future, Blacker said, “I can only speak for myself, but I’d say the uncertainty is kind of exciting. I think there’s a real opportunity here to change the business. Every project starts with an idea, and that idea comes from a writer. You can’t take us out of the equation.”
Disclosure: Fast Company editorial staff is in the process of unionizing and is represented by the Writers Guild of America-East. This writer is represented by a WME literary packaging agent though is not a WGA West member.