The pitch seemed promising: a true crime podcast about a vengeful zookeeper from Oklahoma, starring and executive produced by "Saturday Night Live" comedian Kate McKinnon.
United Talent Agency assembled a "package" that included McKinnon and the rights to develop Wondery's podcast into a TV show, and sold the series last month to a studio run by NBCUniversal. The series, called "Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic," did not have a writer assigned.
Seven months after thousands of Hollywood writers "fired" their agents to protest longstanding industry practices, talent agencies are continuing to package and sell shows at a brisk pace -- often without writers attached. This marks a significant departure from recent years in which the vast majority of packaged TV shows included members of the Writers Guild of America.
As Hollywood's biggest labor dispute in a decade continues with no end in sight, some talent agencies have found a workaround: They are not selecting writers before they sell new TV projects to studios. Instead, they are building shows around popular books, podcasts, English-language adaptations of foreign-language shows that are attractive to buyers because they come with already proven ideas.
"The major agencies have invested heavily in cultivating and procuring in-demand IP for decades and our job is to set those projects up and sell them to buyers," said a senior agency executive who declined to be named. "The truth is, most movies and TV shows originate from underlying IP, a book, an article, a podcast, a format or an original character. The demand for valuable IP hasn't changed whether we represent writers or not."
Packaging shows around non-writing executive producers has precedent in some other countries, including the U.K. But the practice has alarmed some writers, who warn that not involving writers from the initial conception of a TV series sets a bad precedent and could limit their creative control over the series.
"If agencies can package without us and we're pushed to the back of the line rather than the front of the line ... it would be tragic for us as storytellers because we would be executing someone else's vision rather than our own," said Ethan Drogin, who most recently was an executive producer on USA Network's legal drama "Suits."
Packaging is a longstanding industry practice whereby agents assemble writers, actors and intellectual property for a given project, then collect a fee from the studio when the project is sold (a portion of the licensing fee and a piece of the "back end"). Agencies argue that writers benefit from packaging because they do not need to pay the typical 10% commission fee to their agents. But the WGA argues such fees create inherent conflicts of interest, giving agents an incentive to put their own financial interests before their clients. The sides have turned to the courts to settle the dispute.
Meanwhile, at least two major talent agencies said packaging TV shows has continued at the same pace as last year. One agency executive said that 75% of the company's TV deals since April have been packaged, and that two-thirds of those shows were sold without guild writers attached.
WGA West President David Goodman criticized the agencies' continued use of packaging.