Hollywood agents have played a number of roles for television writers over the years. For a fee, they have served as dependable friends, occasional therapists and, most important, fierce advocates able to extract large sums from studio executives.
That relationship has been tested by a large group of TV writers affiliated with the Writers Guild of America who claim that the major talent agencies have been enriching themselves at the expense of their clients. At a time when there are more scripted shows than ever, the writers say, their pay is stagnant or going down.
The agents counter that they are looking out for their clients in a fast-changing business. The current setup, they claim, gives writers the best shot at making big money in a landscape disrupted by the rise of streaming and the mergers of corporate media giants.
If the two sides prove unable to resolve their differences, the East and West branches of the W.G.A. have said they will instruct their roughly 13,000 members to fire their agents en masse. The two affiliated unions have given the Association of Talent Agents, a group representing the agencies, a deadline of Saturday at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time to pledge that they will change their ways.
David A. Goodman, the president of the W.G.A. West, accused the agencies of behaving selfishly. “They’re not focused on representing talent, and writers are actually earning less,” he said. “That’s why it’s a problem now.”
Chris Silbermann, the managing director of ICM Partners, disputed that view of writers and their representatives. “The agents are their best friend,” he said. “I’d argue their wages would be worse if it weren’t for agents constantly fighting buyers. My agents spend all day long fighting that good fight.”
According to the writers, the agencies have unfairly benefited themselves in two ways. The first is by collecting so-called packaging fees from the studios, in lieu of a percentage of their clients’ compensation.
Under this practice, which goes back to the days of radio, agencies put together a lineup of their own clients — a group that may include writers, directors and stars — in an effort to get a studio to say yes to a given project.
The second sticking point has to do with a newer phenomenon: the big agencies’ entry into the production business. In recent years, William Morris Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency and United Talent Agency have started functioning more like studios, with the establishment of sibling companies that develop and own content. That means agents may find themselves negotiating with executives who are essentially their colleagues.
The battle between the writers and the agencies is highly unusual. In previous Hollywood labor disputes, writers have typically gone after the studios.
“This is unlike a classic labor dispute where labor is fighting with its employer,” said Jonathan Handel, a lecturer at the University of Southern California who has written on labor issues for The Hollywood Reporter. “If you think about the questions a newly arrived writer in Hollywood asks, it’s: ‘How do I write a good screenplay? How do I find an agent?’ Now the question they’re asking is, ‘How do I fire my agent?’”
More than 100 agencies represent writers, but the consolidation of the major agencies has left four dominant players — William Morris, Creative Artists, United Talent and ICM. The big four account for the bulk of W.G.A. members’ earnings, the guild said.
Last week, more than 95 percent of those belonging to the W.G.A. West and W.G.A. East voted in favor of a new code of conduct that would require the agencies to get rid of packaging fees and lose any ownership stakes in their clients’ shows. Before the vote, more than 800 name writers, including J. J. Abrams, Tina Fey and Shonda Rhimes, signed a letter encouraging their fellow members to go along with the plan.
Some writers have claimed that agencies take packaging fees with little transparency or input from their clients. David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” wrote on his blog about feeling more or less duped into a packaging deal in the 1990s, when his nonfiction book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” was adapted into an NBC series.
“Packaging is a lie,” Mr. Simon wrote. “It is theft. It is fraud. In the hands of the right U.S. Attorney, it might even be prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering.”
Meredith Stiehm, the creator of the CBS hit “Cold Case,” which aired from 2003 to 2010, said she discovered a $75,000-per-episode fee earmarked for Creative Artists when she was asked to cut the show’s budget 134 episodes into its run. She asked Warner Bros., the studio behind the show, if it would cut that fee, only to be told no, she said.
“Why in the world should my agents make $75,000 per episode on my show?” Ms. Stiehm said in an interview. “Agencies don’t work on television shows. They make the deal in the beginning, and that’s it.”
When the series became profitable, she said, Creative Artists received more money, in addition to the per-episode fee. “C.A.A. ended up making 94 cents for every dollar that I earned,” she said.
Ms. Stiehm, a member of the W.G.A. board, said she had known little about packaging at the time. “It’s complicated to understand, and it’s all very hidden,” she said.
Sonya Rosenfeld, a Creative Artists agent who represented Ms. Stiehm, said she had informed her client of the arrangement from the get-go.
“I do find it incredibly hard to believe that a showrunner who had a fiduciary responsibility overseeing a multimillion-dollar budget of a series and who looks at a budget every single season would not have known about this until Season 6,” Ms. Rosenfeld said.
Ms. Rosenfeld added that, in her view, Ms. Stiehm benefited from packaging: The agency had paired her with another client, Jerry Bruckheimer, a producer known for blockbuster films and popular TV shows.
Last month, United Talent released an analysis that writers make more money on packaged series than they do on non-packaged programs. And Mr. Silbermann, the ICM agent, said packaging only benefited writers.
“I’m advocating the studio for a better budget, and better license fees, and more episodes from the network,” he said.
The W.G.A. disputes the idea that packaging is a boon, claiming that from 2014 to 2016, the median weekly earnings of its members dropped by 23 percent.
Studio executives have largely stayed out of the fracas, as have members of the acting and directors unions. In interviews, many of the bystanders compared the unions’ strategy to Brexit — an unyielding stance that could bring on a chaotic future.
In recent years, some of the major agencies have taken investment from private equity firms and expanded their businesses. Endeavor, the parent company of William Morris, is preparing an initial public offering, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Agencies have pointed to the changing dynamics of the television business in making the case for the status quo. Streaming has ushered in shorter seasons, longer hiatuses and less residual money, with the syndication and DVD markets starting to go dry.
And the fact that agencies’ sibling companies have gone into production should also not be considered a problem, the agents say. After all, the talent and production arms of the companies operate separately.
Union leaders don’t buy those arguments and take particular issue with the idea that the agencies can protect themselves from conflicts of interest as they act more like studios.
“That an agency is also your boss is something we can’t accept,” Mr. Goodman said. “If your agent is your employer, you don’t have an agent.”
The two central issues are more of an issue for TV writers than for screenwriters. For now, the unions and the agencies seem to agree that packaging helps films — especially independent films — get financed.
Whatever the W.G.A.’s recommendation on Saturday night, lawsuits could be flying in the coming weeks.
“I think the only way this is going to be resolved is through litigation,” Mr. Handel, the U.S.C. lecturer, said. “I don’t see how either side pivots from this, in what could be an epic litigation battle.”