Krista Vernoff: Why I Left My Agent, Despite the Sales Pitch (Guest Column)
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Krista Vernoff: Why I Left My Agent, Despite the Sales Pitch (Guest Column)

The Writers Guild is taking on a systemic problem in Hollywood: Why should the middle men and women who help sell content make more money than the talent creating the content?

On Friday, I called my agent in tears to let him know that I had signed the Writers Guild letter terminating CAA’s right to represent me in matters related to my writing career.

I have been with my agent nearly twenty years now. I like him a lot. I trust him utterly. He has done his job well, guided and supported my career, and made me a lot more money than I would have made without him. He is also, it bears mentioning, a brave and genuinely good guy. I know this because once, when I was on a staff that was being abused by a sociopathic showrunner, one of my peers called her agent who said, “You can’t quit. You can’t break your contract. You’ll never work again.” When I called my agent, he said, “Walk out right now. Go home. Do you need me to pick you up?”

It was hard to part ways with him when the deadline expired for talks between the guild and the agencies. I say ‘part ways’ because I did not fire my agent. Instead, I quoted Lin-Manuel Miranda: “See you on the other side of the war.” 

In response, my agent did what agents do: he tried to sell me. He tried to sell me on the idea that it is my guild that is being unreasonable here. He tried to sell me on the idea that this action by my guild is damaging and irresponsible to lower and mid level writers. He hit me with the sentence, “Your guild didn’t even counter our offer.”

Agencies are made up of lawyers, MBA’s, sales-people whose job it is right now to sell us on the idea that our union leadership is crazy and wrong and unreasonable. I am wildly pro union, and I happen to have a negotiating committee member in my writers’ room and another who is a mom at my daughter’s school, so I am well versed on the issues and the negotiations. I believe that we are fighting a righteous fight. And still, my excellent salesman/lawyer agent dented my confidence when I spoke to him. He got me on the ropes. Like Rocky, I needed a pep talk to get back in the ring. Here is the pep talk I gave myself:

What the Writers Guild is trying to do here is bold, for sure. It’s David and Goliath. It’s Norma Rae. My guild is taking on a massive, systemic problem in Hollywood; a problem so entrenched that despite months of conversations, the ATA has not yet budged on the real issues on the table.

Why should the middle men and women who help sell content make more money than the talent creating the content?

Why do my friends who are entertainment attorneys have endless stories about agents asking them to “take the lead” in aggressive writer negotiations because the agents are afraid to anger their agency bosses?

My agent tells me the “producers are laughing” at us. But my friends who are high powered producers are saying, “Oh, we’ve known this is a massive conflict of interest for years. We see it. It’s gross. We just never thought it could change.”

Just because a Hollywood system is entrenched, that doesn’t make it right. (See: Harvey Weinstein.)

When I came to Grey’s Anatomy as a supervising producer level writer in season one – fifteen years ago – I made more money per episode than the supervising producer level writers on Grey’s Anatomy are making now. And I’m told that Grey’s writers’ quotes are actually higher than most.

Our income as a guild has gone radically down while Hollywood’s profits have gone radically up. The ATA is claiming that it’s because show orders have been reduced. But Grey’s Anatomy’s order has not been reduced; we produced 25 episodes this year. So why is the only thing that’s increased for TV writers, in the 19 years since I became one, the guild negotiated minimums?

If you look at what an executive was making 15 years ago vs. what they are making now – there’s been a significant raise. If you look at what an agent was making 15 years ago vs. what they are making now, there’s been a significant raise. And the agencies who supposedly represent us are now worth billions. Meanwhile, writers are being held flat. Talent – on the whole – has been held flat or seen a radically reduced income for a long time now. (One related example: when I started in television, actors regularly made their series regular quotes for a guest spot on TV. But for the last decade, “top of show” became the standard. Top of show is industry code for “SAG minimum.” You can’t make a living when you’re earning the minimum. It is not right that the MBA’s get rich on the backs of the talent while the talent have to wait tables to pay rent.)

I understand that there are multi-tiered problems with corporations and CEOs and the rich getting richer and systemic watering downs of unions not just in Hollywood but nationwide. I also understand that my deal is made, that I am in a position of privilege, and that this action does not hurt me in the short term because I have a lucrative job right now. My agent is telling me that we are taking this action on the backs of the rank and file members of our guild as we head in to staffing season. “You won’t be hurt. They will.” He states it as fact. But it doesn’t have to be.

The same number of jobs will be filled this staffing season, with or without agents. The risk here is who gets access. So we have to use direct submission systems, work together as a union to read writers we don’t know, and promote the good ones to our friends. It’s already happening all over social media and in the email inboxes of all the showrunners I know. And if we are capable of building entire worlds from our imaginations, we are capable of cutting out the middle men and women for staffing season and helping our fellow guild members find work. It will require extra effort on our parts. But dismantling and rebuilding broken systems often requires extra effort – and nets great gains.

I believe that the fact that our agencies are conflicted when representing us is a big part of the problems we are facing as a collective. I believe that the deeply broken system is having very real, long term, detrimental effects on the lower and midlevel members of our guild, and that this action, as painful as it feels in the moment, is not the problem but the beginning of the solution. I do not believe that this action by the guild is on the backs of young writers, I believe it is in service of them and all the writers to come.

Finally, the Writers Guild did counter. We countered on any issue where the ATA gave reasonable responses. But last week, the ATA came to the table and offered less than a penny on every dollar of our backend they earn. They said they would dedicate it to an as yet unspecified and unconsidered inclusion/diversity effort. Their big offer was addressing a real problem – just not the problem that is on the table in this particular negotiation. That is a classic sales move, designed to both distract us and make us look like assholes.

I hope the ATA does the right thing and leaves that inclusion fund money on the table – because it’s needed. And I hope they add to it some real and substantive proposal on packaging, on producing, on the very real conflicts of interest that my guild is boldly and righteously confronting. 

Krista Vernoff is the showrunner on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.

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