In an interesting turn of events, talent agencies for new TV shows have found a way to get around hurdles in the current labor dispute in Hollywood: they’re selling shows without writers. In the most significant upheaval in the industry in a decade, Hollywood writers terminated their agreements with their agents to protest decades-long practices, including packaging of shows and agent-engagement in production.
Talent agencies are still packaging and selling shows, however. Only now, the deals don’t come with writers attached. Until now, the industry-standard has been to use the Writers Guild of America for packaged shows.
The concept behind the move is that the IP, or base premise of the show, takes precedence over who adapts and writes it. There’s still a massive demand for streamed content, and talent agencies are scooping up existing popular titles from podcasts, books or foreign-language programs adapted to English. The talent agencies are banking on these titles because they come market-proven, regardless of the producer or writer.
Finding and growing IP with an existing audience has been the talent agencies’ business model, and most TV and film titles have based themselves on original ideas, formats or characters. The concepts exist regardless of the teller.
Although packaging shows according to producer-interest isn’t without precedent in and outside of Hollywood, writers still show concern it represents a faulty standard. They posit it would reduce their role as storytellers to the job of merely materializing an existing plan.
Packaging works by putting together the necessary concept and players together and selling the group for a fee and some back-end rights. Although packaging saves writers an agent’s commission, the WGA contends the practice runs contrary to the agent’s obligation to the writer. Nevertheless, more than half of the shows sold in 2018 were packages minus a writer.
Buyers like the idea of packaging because it means they take on less risk with a proven idea tailored to the existing audience. Buyers could also have the option to choose a preferred writer. In some cases, writers find work on what amounts to a job board, which, some argue, relegates them to the position of hired workers connecting dots rather than validating television’s role – verified through viewership – as a creative venue.
Some creative don’t think it matters when a writer joins the project because writers still need to take up the project and adapt it creatively once they’re on the project. The argument, in this case, is that packaging amounts to nothing more than selling creative rights to an IP.
At that, writers in general remain unconvinced, saying packaging dilutes the chances of making a sale. They cite the necessary integrity brought to the project by a writer experienced with and invested in a concept. A concept without the unique understanding of a knowledgeable writer would take the stuffing out of a pitch right at the bargaining table.