Hollywood Talent Agency Loses Bid to End Writers Guild Boycott

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday struck down a Hollywood entertainment firm’s effort to end a Writers Guild boycott over packaging fees, finding that the court lacks jurisdiction to enjoin the protest since it’s a protected labor action under federal law.

William Morris Endeavor and other top agencies sued the guild, claiming it stifled entertainment competition by directing thousands of its writers — including Tina Fey and Seth MacFarlane — to fire agents who didn’t sign a guild pact to invalidate the fees.

Most TV and film writers hire talent agencies to find them work and negotiate package deals — or contracts that bundle multiple talents for a project — with studios, who in return, pay agencies packaging fees. 

The guild has said the practice heavily favors studios’ contract terms while driving down writers’ wages, decreasing job opportunities and cutting into union fees. 

The parties’ nearly two-year legal battle over the issue has pushed talent away from agencies, plaintiffs said in court papers, adding that the guild’s “illegal” boycott violates federal antitrust laws.

In recent months though, progress has been made on settling the dispute.

The guild agreed on Dec. 17 to restore talent firm Creative Artists Agency’s ability to represent screenwriters after it signed a franchise agreement ending packaging fees and reducing CAA’s ownership stake in affiliated production companies to 20%.

More than 100 other talent firms, including United Talent Agency, a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, have also signed franchise agreements with the guild this year.

The day after CAA announced its agreement, attorneys for WME appeared virtually in federal court in Los Angeles requesting that U.S. District Court Judge Andre Birotte Jr. enjoin the guild’s boycott and send the matter to trial in 2021.

Jeffrey Kessler of the firm Winston & Strawn, an attorney for WME, told Birotte the agency has lost more than a 1,000 writers and 300 showrunners due to the dispute and that the guild simply wants WME out of the industry.

WGA attorney Stacey Leyton said she was heartened by the WME statement in the media about the CAA settlement being a hopeful sign and that the agency should come to the negotiating table and drop its claim that the boycott is unlawful.

Kessler told Birotte that if a settlement was still possible, the talent firm would simply request the same deal CAA received which would give WME time to divest from their massive production company.

Birotte appeared to be pushing the parties to settle their claims, saying in the virtual hearing that attorneys should consider the impact the protracted legal battle was having on their clients and their families, especially during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Real people are paying the price for this dispute,” Birotte said.

Birotte sided with the guild, writing in an 8-page ruling that injunctive relief is precluded because the matter involves a protected labor dispute as defined by the Norris-LaGuardia Act.

“While this case may involve contract negotiations, the ultimate contract negotiated will directly relate to terms and conditions of work and representation for writers in the guilds, even based upon plaintiff’s characterization of who defendants are and what they do,” Birotte wrote. “Disputes involving the contractual means (i.e., the ‘how’) of labor representation does not convert this matter into a non-labor issue.”

The guild’s boycott — even if it violates Sherman Act antitrust laws, which Birotte has not said this action does — is a protected activity since it relates to writers’ employment conditions, the ruling said.

A WME spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Birotte also wrote that WME failed to show the guild’s action had destroyed its property or led to violence or criminal acts which, under the Sherman Act, could potentially lead to injunctive relief.

This past April, Birotte tossed the bulk of the guild’s claims that agencies engaged in unlawful price-fixing with studios when securing package deals for writers they represented.

The guild had also accused CAA, WME and UTA of unlawfully blacklisting other agencies that agreed to the union’s labor rules, but Birotte dismissed those claims as well. 

A guild spokesperson did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the ruling.

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