In April, 2019 the WGA directed its members to fire their agents unless the agents agreed to adhere to a Code of Conduct that would end the collection of package commissions and strictly limit their ownership stake in production entities. Buoyed by solidarity among its members, the union was successful in obtaining widespread agreement from the agencies, beginning with Verve in May 2019 to industry leaders UTA and ICM Partners over the summer. This leaves the two largest agencies, CAA and WME, still to negotiate deals. The WGA has now reported that it is in advanced talks with both agencies to reach a final agreement.

The sticking point in negotiations is the ownership interest of the agencies in affiliated production companies. The WGA will accept agency ownership stakes of up to 20% in production entities. Its concern is to unravel the ownership structures of both agencies, their private equity owners, and their affiliated production companies — Endeavor Content for WME and wiip for CAA — in order to satisfy itself that this is the case. The WGA says that it has brought in outside corporate and M&A counsel and sent a request to both agencies for them to disclose in detail their relationships to the production affiliates, the agencies and their owners.

In response to CAA’s recent statement that it had largely accepted the Guild’s terms, the WGA responded “CAA has proposed changes to the [franchise] agreement that the WGA has not — and cannot — agree to,” but added “our conversations continue.” Coming from a union that is not above calling its negotiating partners “despicable,” I would take this relatively measured tone as a sign of progress.

The battle between the Writers Guild of America and the major agencies has been waged on two fronts for over a year, with mixed results.

Attention recently has focused primarily on the WGA’s pressure campaign to require agencies to sign a Code of Conduct renouncing package commissions and ownership of production companies as a condition of representing its members. This campaign has proved largely successful. Most of the boutique and mid-sized agencies and two of the big four, UTA and ICM Partners, have signed agreements to this effect, leaving only CAA and WME insisting on their rights to package and produce. The Guild made some compromises, but it’s fair to say that it has largely attained this goal.

The second front in the battle has been federal court litigation. The outcomes here have been more mixed.

The litigation originally pitted the WGA West and East and some individual Guild members against WME, CAA and UTA. Since making its deal with the WGA, UTA has withdrawn from the lawsuit.

The agencies sued the WGA in June, 2019 when the Guild first instructed its members to fire their agents unless they signed the Code of Conduct. The complaint alleged that the Guild was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Guild asserted counterclaims under federal antitrust and racketeering statutes, price-fixing under California’s Cartwright Act and state claims for unfair competition, constructive fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

In response to the agencies’ motion to dismiss, the District Judge, Andre̒ Birotte, Jr., dismissed the federal claims outright for lack of standing. Among other rulings, he also dismissed for lack of associational standing the Guild’s claims brought on behalf of its members for breach of fiduciary duty and constructive fraud, and dismissed the claim brought by the Guild under California Unfair Competition Law. The judge held that the WGA did, however, have standing to sue the agencies for price-fixing under California’s Cartwright Act.

The WGA then filed an amended complaint and did rather better the second time around. It held off the agencies’ challenge to the court’s prior ruling that it had standing to pursue its Cartwright Act claims. It was also successful in reinstating causes of action that had been dismissed. It convinced the court of its associational standing to bring breach of fiduciary duty and constructive fraud claims on behalf of its members. More to the point, the court recognized the Guild’s standing to obtain injunctive relief. This was fundamental to its goal in the lawsuit, namely to prohibit the agencies from receiving packaging fees.

This is an incremental victory for the Guild, but it keeps it alive on the litigation front. In light of the movement to settlement by the other agencies, one would think that WME and CAA will themselves come to the table at some point if the WGA is also willing to deal.

In a bid to lure virus-wary audiences back into its theaters, AMC Theaters will be offering tickets priced at just 15 cents.

The promotion will be available at 100 of the chain’s theaters for one day only on August 20. This is the official reopening date of AMC’s theaters after a five month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The price point reflects the price of tickets when AMC opened its first theater in Kansas City 100 years ago in 1920. In keeping with the throwback theme of the promotion, the movies on tap will be classics including Grease and Back to the Future.

This is all a bit of test of the country’s risk tolerance. Despite Disney’s decision to release its live action Mulan into pay-per-view, the studios are generally as eager as the exhibitors to get audiences back into theaters, even subject to social distancing and mask requirements. Among other titles, The New Mutants is scheduled for an August 28 release, and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet for Labor Day weekend on September 3. Too soon?

Many of us will remember 2020 as the year that the theatrical exhibition business irrevocably changed. Our last blog covered the landmark agreement between Universal Pictures and AMC, the world’s largest theater chain, to reduce the theatrical exhibition window from three months to just over three weeks. Now a New York federal judge has granted a motion by the Department of Justice to terminate the Paramount Consent Decrees—antitrust rules that have governed the relationship of studios and theater owners since 1949.

Background

Following an adverse Supreme Court decision in 1948, the studios consented to divest their theaters, which they then owned. The Consent Decrees also prohibited the studios from certain business practices. These included block booking, under which theaters were required to license a package including less desirable movies in order to get the ones they wanted, and circuit dealing, in which studios demanded a single license to cover all of the theaters in a chain. The ban on both of these will expire after a sunset period.

Rationale

The District Judge, Analisa Torres, agreed with the Justice Department’s arguments that the original rationale for the Decrees had no place in a time of technological change. She noted that “seventy years of technological innovation, new competitors and business models, and shifting consumer demand have fundamentally changed the industry.” Many of the studios that were subject to the original Decrees no longer exist as independent entities, while new entities such as Netflix and Amazon are potential major competitors not subject to the Decrees.

As for continued antitrust concerns, the judge was confident that existing antitrust law would be sufficient to address them. “Antitrust laws, and their faithful enforcement, weigh in favor of the Court’s finding that there is a low likelihood of a potential future violation absent the Decrees.”

Objections

Theater owners were not as sanguine as the court. The National Association of Theater Owners and a spokesperson for independent theaters both issued statements warning of the threat to competition from vertical integration of distribution and exhibition of theatrical features. The Directors Guild of America also weighed in on the subject on behalf of the creative community. The DGA expressed concern that the opportunities for independent cinema in the marketplace, already under threat, would become more imperiled still.

What’s Next?

There may be at least one bright spot for consumers in this ruling. More than one theater chain is presently in or near bankruptcy. A studio buyout could keep local movie houses open, though possibly limited to showing only product in which its owner has an interest.

It’s likely that the changes in the theatrical exhibition model as a result of the termination of the Decrees will take some time to play out, but changes there will certainly be. We can look to the television business for a historical precedent. The Financial Interest and Syndication Rules promulgated by the FCC in 1970 prohibited networks from owning a stake in their programming or in syndication revenues. When those rules were eliminated in 1993, the networks and major studios quickly merged into vertically integrated entities. The result was a radical shift in the television business. Something similar is happening here.

We are not going to see a quite a return to pre-Decrees practices in these days of multiplexes and online streamers, but the elimination of the Decrees combined with the inevitable end of the 90-day theatrical window will shift bargaining power decisively in favor of the major studios. It remains to be seen what they will do with that leverage.

Movie theaterThese have been hard times for the movie theater business. Attendance peaked in 2002 at approximately 1.6 billion tickets sold. In 2019, that number had dropped by 25%, to around 1.2 billion. The proliferation of subscription streaming services is not the only force driving this trend, but it is certainly a substantial one. Against this challenging backdrop, the COVID pandemic has caused the studios to cut off theatrical release of new movies since March, so that theaters not affected by local shut down orders don’t have product to show even if they could induce audiences to come out to watch them.

Exhibitors have historically been able to maintain a 90-day exclusive theatrical exhibition window before a title is available to be viewed at home. This once meant home video; now the window includes release on streaming platforms. The studios have been pushing to shorten this window for years. They reason that as theatrical releases have become dominated by blockbusters that make most of their money in the first few weeks, there is less value to be gained from an extended theatrical run. They hope to reduce marketing costs by piggybacking marketing for the digital release on the initial theatrical marketing push and grab audiences while their attention is still keen. The exhibitors’ objection to this is simple–the sooner that consumers can expect a movie will be available for home viewing, the less likely they will be to watch it at a movie theater.

In some cases, the pandemic provided the studios with an opportunity and an excuse to make the moves they had long been angling for. Although they are willing to postpone release of potential blockbusters until theaters reopen, more modestly budgeted, genre and family fare are heading directly to streaming platforms on a pay-per-view model. For example, Universal achieved notable success with the animated feature Trolls World Tour, which earned nearly $100 million in rentals without a theatrical release.

But by pushing the envelope with Trolls, Universal also, to mix metaphors, stirred the pot. When Jeff Shell, the CEO of NBCUniversal, told the Wall Street Journal in late April that when theaters reopened Universal would be releasing films in both theatrical and pay VOD formats, AMC, the largest chain both in the US and worldwide, riposted that Universal pictures would henceforth be banned from its theaters.

It’s been a long summer, however. The pandemic shows no signs of abating and things have changed since April. In early July, AMC announced a major debt restructuring in order to avoid bankruptcy. And this week, the chain made peace with NBCU in a deal that could foreshadow a wholesale reshaping of the theatrical business model. The agreement, currently for the US only, collapses the 90-day exclusive theatrical window for Universal features to 17 days, including 3 weekends. After that window, Universal would have the option to release its pictures to premium VOD and pay AMC a share of its rental revenues, reportedly 10%.

It’s too soon tell what the immediate impact of this development will be. Reactions so far have been limited, although Cineworld, the parent of the number three US chain Regal Cinemas, has come out flatly in opposition to any shortening of the theatrical window. In the longer term, pandemics tend to accelerate trends already underway. The Black Death hastened the Renaissance and in a smaller way COVID-19 is likely to hasten the changes in theatrical exhibition that market forces have been driving for a decade or more.

UTA has just announced that it reached agreement with the Writers Guild to sign a franchise agreement that will permit it to resume representation of writers.

This will bring a partial end to a dispute that has lasted for over a year. The WGA had directed its members to fire their agents over their practice of receiving packaging fees directly from networks and studios, which the Guild regarded as a conflict of interest. The WGA also objected to the agencies’ moves into producing through their own affiliated production entities.

More than 80 other agencies, including many prominent ones, have signed a Code of Conduct promulgated by the WGA, but UTA is the first of the four largest agencies to reach agreement over these issues. The others are WME, CAA and ICM Partners.

According to a note from UTA co-president Jay Sures, the agency is not signing the Code of Conduct, but has reached a negotiated settlement. UTA agreed to eliminate package commissions in two years provided one of the other big four agencies also agrees to do so. It may continue to produce through affiliates, but only with a minority stake and subject to other limitations. It required the WGA to back off on its demand for the agency to send it copies of every writer’s contracts. The Guild and UTA also agreed to dismiss their pending lawsuits against each other.

First a collective bargaining agreement, and now this. It may have taken a pandemic, but progress is possible.

In a down to the wire bargaining session, the Writers Guild of America negotiating committee reached agreement with the studios on a new three-year deal. This was unanimously approved by the governing boards of the WGA West and East and will go to the membership for likely ratification later this month. The pact averts what was widely seen pre-COVID as the very real possibility of a writers strike.

The terms track gains previously won by the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, including substantial increases in residuals for high-budget streaming programs on subscription services like Netflix. The union negotiators were also able to obtain concessions that are of special concern to writers facing a world in which a typical series season is more likely to be eight or ten episodes than 22. The new contract will set limits on the length of time that a writer can be held under off the market under an exclusive option after completing work on a short season. It also sets a threshold minimum that writers must earn over the course of a season when they are paid on an episodic basis.

Hollywood is breathing a sigh of relief that these rocky negotiations are concluded. The town faces many challenges ahead as productions struggle to restart in the face of the pandemic.  Labor unrest is one less obstacle on that path.

 

A planned Netflix movie about Sherlock Holmes’s sister is the target of a lawsuit from the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the legendary detective. The estate has asserted both copyright and trademark claims.

The estate will have to walk a narrow path to prevail on its copyright claims. All but the last ten Sherlock Holmes stories have fallen into the public domain.  A 2014 Federal Circuit Court decision ruled that the attributes of the character had done so as well. The estate’s claim is that those ten stories still under copyright include “significant new character traits” that Netflix is using in its “Enola Holmes” spinoff. It cites as one example the “warm friendship” between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that it says was portrayed for the first time in the final Holmes stories.

The complaint also raises trademark claims. From the estate’s standpoint, a trademark has the benefit of never expiring as long as it remains in use. In order to prevail on this claim, the Conan Doyle estate will need to make the typical factual showings for trademark infringement: that the Holmes character signifies a source or origin of goods or services and that the Netflix movie would be likely to cause consumers to be confused as to its source or origin.

The performers union, SAG-AFTRA, has reached a deal with the studios for a new three-year contract covering theatrical, television and new media production. The proposal will still need to be approved by the national board and the membership before taking effect.

The proposed contract is patterned on the agreement struck by the Directors Guild earlier this year. It includes wage increases and increased pension and health contributions. The most critical improvement, however, is improved residuals for high-budget streaming productions on services such as Amazon and Hulu.

This leaves only the Writers Guild of America without a deal among the above-the-line unions.  The WGA Agreement was schedule to expire on April 30, but the parties agreed to extend until June 30 in light of the COVID pandemic. There was widespread apprehension of a writers’ strike at the beginning of the year, and the negotiations have not been smooth. At one point, the WGA called the studios group “despicable.” The WGA is also engaged in a battle, in and out of court, with the major talent agencies over package commissions. The pandemic has dampened strike talk somewhat. Attention has turned to establishing protocols for reopening production as writers  look forward to an uncertain job market.

Another blow was struck in the litigation between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the top three talent agencies.

In April, the agencies prevailed in their motion to dismiss eight of the nine claims asserted against them by the WGA in the pending US District Court case.  They have now moved to dismiss the remaining claim.

The underlying issue in the case has been the WGA’s contention that the agencies’ practice of collecting packaging commissions is an illegal conflict of interest. Packages are commissions collected directly from networks or studios out of production budgets rather than directly from the clients of the agencies. In April, 2019, it directed its members to fire their agents unless they renounced the practice. This prompted WME, CAA and UTA, the three biggest agencies, to sue the WGA.

The WGA promptly counterclaimed, alleging violations of federal antitrust and racketeering law, of the California antitrust statute (Cartwright Act), fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. Individual writers also joined in each one of these claims. The April ruling by Judge  Andre Birotte dismissed the federal price fixing and racketeering claims for lack of standing, because the alleged harm suffered by the union and its members does not fall under the statute. The court also held that the Guild lacked standing to assert fraud and fiduciary duty claims on behalf of its members.

The agencies have now moved to dismiss the WGA’s Cartwright Act claim. Judge Birotte had let this claim stand because that statute has more expansive standing requirements than the federal statutes. The agencies are asking the judge to reconsider that conclusion. They argue that if writers are given standing to sue, it would open a floodgate of potential plaintiffs resulting in duplicative recoveries and impossible problems of allocation and proof of damages. If the alleged harm of a package commission is that by being paid out of production budgets, the agents are pocketing money that would otherwise be going to writers, the same would apply to directors and performers, and not only them but also to cinematographers, make-up artists and everyone else involved in a production. “The risk of exponential and duplicative claims,” they say, “is precisely why the Cartwright Act does not permit standing in this case.”