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Hollywood Writers Sue Their Agents Over Pay and Competition Issues

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  • The Writer’s Guild of America is suing four major talent agencies alleging unfair competition practices and pay issues.
  • The WGA claims that the packaging fees that agents take as part of representing writers are illegal under California and federal law.
  • In some cases, the WGA says agents take 80 percent of packaging fees that are paid by the studios, rather than the standard 10 percent of a writers’ income.
  • The lawsuit was dropped after the agencies refused to sign the WGA’s code of conduct, which banned packaging fees.

Lawsuit Filed

The Writers Guild of America filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against four major talent agencies in a fight over writers’ wages and unfair competition practices.

The Guild and eight other writers, including The Wire creator David Simon, filed the complaint in a California superior court against William Morris Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency, United Talent Agency, and ICM Partners.

The main issue at hand focuses on “packing fees.” These are deals that allow agents to be paid directly by studios for bringing clients together on a project, instead of having agents receive a standard 10 percent of a writers’ income.

According to the WGA, the Big Four agencies currently receive about 80 percent of the packaging fees that are paid by studios.

One plaintiff, Meredith Stiehm, who created the CBS police drama Cold Case, said that after about six years with CAA, she learned that the agency made 94 cents for each dollar she made from the show.

That is indefensible,” she during a press conference. “An agency should make 10% of what their client makes—not 20, not 50, not like in my case, 94%. 10% is enough.”

The Claims

Along with issues about pay, the writers are also concerned about other ways the industry operates. For instance, they take issue with the trend of agents becoming producers themselves, which creates conflicts of interests.

In the lawsuit, WGA makes two legal claims: that packaging fees violate state fiduciary duty laws, and that those fees violate federal unfair competition laws.

First, under California state law, talent agents are considered fiduciaries. This means they are bound to represent writers, without conflicts of interest. Second, the Guild says that packaging fees constitute illegal “kickbacks” to agents, which would be a violation of both state and federal law.

The lawsuit cites the Taft-Hartley Act, a federal law passed in 1947. The anti-kickback section of the act prohibits “any employer or association of employers to pay, lend, or deliver, or agree to pay, lend, or deliver, any money or other thing of value … to any representative of any of his employees who are employed in an industry affecting commerce.”

Lawyers for the WGA argue that agency packaging fees fall under this ban.

“The plaintiffs will seek a judicial declaration that packaging fees are unlawful and an injunction prohibiting talent agencies from entering into future packaging deals,” Tony Segall, general counsel for the Writers Guild of America West, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

“The suit will also seek damages and repayment of illegal profits on behalf of writers who have been harmed by these unlawful practices in the past,” he added.

How We Got Here

The WGA has been trying to address this issue in recent days. The writers and agents have been without an agreement to govern their relationship with each other since one expired last weekend.

In fact, the WGA had even drafted a code of conduct for agencies that calls for the banning of packaging fees. Around 95 percent of the Guild’s members voted in favor of implementing it and the Guild then asked agencies to sign it. The Big Four agencies refused.

At one point during negotiations, Talent Agencies offered writers a 1 percent cut of their production fee money, but the Guild says that proposal was unacceptable.

On Saturday, the WGA told writers to fire agents who refuse to sign the union’s code of conduct. Some writers complied and have posted images of the letters they had sent to their agents. The letters say that under union rules, they can’t be represented by the agency until a negotiation is reached.

WGA West President David Goodman said the lawsuit shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. “We always had this as part of our strategy,” he said.

“The lawsuit is really at attempt to try and address the situation and make agencies realize this has to be fixed. It wasn’t a matter of the negotiations falling apart and then there was a lawsuit. It’s all part of the same thing.”

Defense

The Association of Talent Agents stands by the packaging fees. In its FAQ sections, the ATA writes, “Packaging agencies help assemble a show’s creative elements before the show is pitched to potential buyers and continue to service the show during its lifecycle.”

If packaging fees were to be eliminated, the ATA says “those packaging fees likely would not be redistributed in any way to talent.

The ATA also noted that United Talent Agency’s analysis found that its writers earn more money on shows that the agency packed and less on shows that it didn’t.

They issued a response to the lawsuit late Wednesday saying, “This development is ironic given that the guild itself has agreed to the legitimacy of packaging for more than 43 years. Even more ironic is the fact that the statute the WGA is suing under prevents abuses of power and authority by labor union leaders, even as the guild has intimidated its own members and repeatedly misled them about their lack of good faith in the negotiating room.”

What now?

Neither side appears to be willing to budge on the issue. The WGA says negotiations can continue as the lawsuit moves forward, with Goodman saying the WGA is waiting for the ATA to make contact with his team.

Without a deal soon, Hollywood productions could be stuck in limbo, leaving thousands of writers without work and hundreds of studio projects on hold.

“The agencies are the ones who’ve made it clear that they’re not taking it seriously. If they’re ready to do that, we’re here,” Goodman said.

The WGA has released a list of agencies that have agreed to their code of conduct and can represent its members. However, the Big Four agencies dominate much of the industry.

The tension unfolding between both parties is unprecedented and a meaningful agreement could change the industry practices for years to come.

See what others are saying: (Deadline) (The Hollywood Reporter) (The Washington Post)

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Felicity Huffman Sentenced to 14 Days in Prison

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  • Actress Felicity Huffman was given a sentence of 14 days in prison for paying a college admissions consultant $15,000 to doctor her daughter’s SAT scores. 
  • Huffman will also be required to serve a year of supervised release, complete 250 hours of community service, and pay a fine of $30,000.
  • Huffman is the first of the 34 parents charged in the expansive college admissions scam. Many had viewed her verdict as a test case for future sentences of others involved in the scandal.

Felicity Huffman Sentenced

Actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison on Friday for her role in the infamous college admissions scandal Operation Varsity Blues, making her the first of nearly three dozen parents charged in the scheme.

Huffman had previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in May after she admitted she had paid admissions consultant Rick Singer $15,000 to have her oldest daughter’s SAT answers corrected by a proctor.

In addition to the brief prison time, the actress’s sentence also includes a year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service, and the payment of a $30,000 fine.

Prosecutors had asked that the actress be sentenced to one month in prison, 12 years of supervised release, and pay a $20,000 fine.

Huffman’s lawyers, however, have said that she should not serve any prison time and had asked for one year of probation, 250 hours of community service, and a $20,000 fine.

Experts have argued that Huffman’s guilty plea and her numerous apologies encouraged Judge Indira Talwani, who oversaw her case, to lighten her sentence for the conspiracy charge, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. 

During the sentencing Friday, Huffman choked up while reading a prepared statement in court before her sentence was handed down.

“I am deeply ashamed of what I have done,” Huffman said to the judge. “At the end of the day I had a choice to make. I could have said ‘no.’”

Announcing her decision, Talwani said she believes Huffman’s punishment is “the right sentence here.” 

“I think you take your sentence and you move forward,” she told the actress. “You can rebuild your life after this. You’ve paid your dues.”

Huffman also responded to the sentence in a statement.

“I broke the law,” she wrote. “I have admitted that and I pleaded guilty to this crime. There are no excuses or justifications for my actions. Period.”

“I would like to apologize again to my daughter, my husband, my family and the educational community for my actions,” she continued. “And I especially want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices supporting their children.”

Test Case for Operation Varsity Blues

Many have viewed Huffman’s sentencing as a test case for the other parents who have been indicted in the sweeping Operation Varsity Blues scandal.

Prosecutors have filed charged against 51 parents, coaches, and employees of Singer.

So far 15 of the 34 parents who have been charged have pleaded guilty. The majority of those parents are scheduled to be sentenced in the next few weeks, and most of their cases are set to be overseen by Judge Talwani.

As a result, Talwani’s response to Huffman’s case could be very telling for the other parents. 

However, at the same time, prosecutors in Huffman’s trial asked for a comparatively lighter sentence, citing the fact that she paid less than many other parents and also because she did not include her younger daughter in the admissions fraud.

By contrast, actress Lori Loughlin and her designer husband Mossimo Giannulli have been accused of paying Singer $500,000 to get both of their daughters into the University of Southern California by falsely claiming they were athletes on the university’s crew team.

Both Loughlin and Giannulli plead not guilty in April and were hit with new charges. They now both face up to 40 years in prison.

For some of the other parents who have already pleaded guilty, prosecutors are asking for as much as 15 months of prison time.

Racial Disparities

Huffman’s sentence is also being seen as a litmus test for how wealthy white families are treated in the justice system compared to lower-income, nonwhite individuals convicted of similar crimes.

Like in Huffman’s case, prosecutors have argued that the parents should serve some time in prison to show that wealthy people will be held accountable for cheating the college admissions system.

In court papers, prosecutors referenced a case where public school teachers, principals, and other administrators in Atlanta were convicted of conspiring to cheat on state tests. All of the defendants were black, and some were sentenced to up three years in prison.

In another case, prosecutors cited, a black mother in Ohio named Kelley Williams-Bolar was sentenced to five years of prison for using her father’s address so her children could go to a suburban school district near where she lived.

Her sentence was later suspended to just 10 days in jail, three years of probation, and community service.

The prosecutors used the cases to argue that light sentences for parents involved in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal would prompt accusations of preferential treatment and racial bias.

“Frequently, those cases involved defendants who are members of racial and ethnic minorities and/or from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds,” prosecutors wrote. “A different result in this case, particularly given the history and characteristics of these defendants, would not be appropriate.”

However, some of the lawyers in both the cases cited by the prosecutors told The New York Times that their cases should not be used to argue that Huffman should serve prison time.

David Singleton, the executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, who represented Ms. Williams-Bolar in successfully seeking clemency in her case, said that there were indeed disparities in the justice system.

“Our educators in our cheating scandal in Atlanta were way over-prosecuted and way over-punished,” said Bob Rubin, who represented a former principal involved in the Atlanta case. “My answer is not to give Felicity Huffman more, but to give our clients less.”

“When you are rich — and particularly if you’re rich and white in this country — there’s a different justice system,” said David Singleton, who represented Williams-Bolar. “Sending Felicity Huffman to jail is not going to solve that problem.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (NBC News)

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SNL’s New Regular Shane Gillis Apologizes After Use of Slurs Resurface

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  • Shortly after SNL announced Shane Gillis as a new show regular, the comedian faced backlash for several racist, homophobic, and sexist comments he made in old podcasts.
  • Gillis then deleted his entire library of podcasts from YouTube and issued an apology for his past jokes on Twitter, saying “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries.”

Gillis Apologizes for Previous Comments

As Saturday Night Live adds its first gay Asian American series regular to its upcoming 45th season, another new cast member is coming under fire for using both racist and homophobic slurs.

Thursday afternoon, SNL announced it was adding Chloe Fineman, Bowen Yang, and Shane Gillis to its roster, the latter of which has now apologized for remarks he made in a series of podcasts posted to YouTube with fellow comedian Matt McCusker.

“Let the fucking ch***s live there,” Gillis said in a September 2018 podcast in reference to New York’s Chinatown.

In the same podcast, Gillis also refers to noodles as “nooders.”

“And the translation between you and the waiter,” Gillis said of Chinese restaurant staff, “it’s just such a fucking hassle. It’s like, can you, I’m pointing at it. Like this is the fucking nooder.”

Following the controversy, Gillis then deleted every video on his YouTube page, titled “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast.” Gillis possibly deleted all videos to shield himself against further controversy; however, copies of his podcasts have circulated online. 

Later the same day of his announcement, Gillis apologized for his comments on Twitter.

“I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries,” he said in the post. “I sometimes miss. If you go through my 10 years of comedy, most of it bad, you’re going to find a lot of bad misses. I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said. My intention is never to hurt anyone but I’m trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”

Gillis’ Past Comments

A variety of media sites and people online have uncovered a plethora of now not-so-secret podcasts, where Gillis makes a wide range of racist comments about Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Jewish people. Gillis can also be heard making further homophobic and sexist comments.

In one podcast, Gillis criticizes comedian Sarah Silverman for discussing women’s rights.

Later, in the same podcast, Gillis criticized comedians who talk about their depression in their stand up routines, calling them “gay.”

“Those guys are fucking gayer than Isis,” Gillis said, then breaking into a caricatured accent. “At least Isis is out there, ‘We need to get the pussy. After we blow ourselves up, we get a bunch of pussy. These white, faggot comics they’re like, ‘I’m just sad life is hard and I’m gay.’”

In the same podcast, Gillis continues to make homophobic comments, using “faggot” and other slurs several more times.

“Stop calling me fucking gay, dude,” Gillis said in the podcast. “I ain’t no queer.”

After McCusker said he was not impressed with a Latino stand-up comedian, Gillis said he should have told the comic to go back to the Spanish-language TV station Univision.

Because of those comments like those, Kate Banford, who co-owns the Good Good Comedy Theatre, told Vulture that the theatre broke ties with Gillis over his history with slurs. 

“Good Good Comedy Theatre stopped working with him within the past few years because of racist, homophobic, and sexist things he’s said on and offstage,” she said to Vulture.

Bowen Yang’s Addition

With Yang’s addition, many media outlets originally credited him as the show’s third openly gay cast member and first since John Milhiser’s exit in 2014; however, Yang joins Kate McKinnon, who is openly gay and has been on the show since 2012.

Many other outlets also originally described Yang as the first Asian American cast member, yet both Fred Armisen, who is half-Korean and appeared on the show from 2002-2013, and Rob Schneider, who is a quarter Filipino and starred on the show in the 1990s, are of Asian descent.

Yang began his time at SNL last year during its 44th season as a writer. Yang also portrayed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un during an episode hosted by Sandra Oh. 

In recent years, SNL has come under fire for its lack of Asian cast members, with Vanity Fair reporting that the skit comedy show has featured so few Asian actors that it, at times, has used its production designer Akira Yoshimura to play Sulu from Star Trek. Yoshimura first appeared on the show in 1976 and has appeared as recently as 2017.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NBC News) (Indie Wire)

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NFL Star Antonio Brown Accused of Rape in Civil Lawsuit

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  • In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, the New England Patriots’ new wide receiver Antonio Brown was accused of three incidents of sexual assault in 2017 and 2018, against his former trainer. 
  • Brown denied the allegations, with his legal team saying the sexual relationship was consensual and suggesting that the accuser is after money. 
  • The N.F.L. will launch its own investigation into the claims, but as of now, it is unclear if Brown will be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list.

Accuser Files Lawsuit 

New England Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown has been accused of raping his former trainer, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the Southern District of Florida.

The civil complaint claims that Brown, 31, assaulted a woman named Britney Taylor, 28, on three separate occasions, two times in June 2017 and another time in May 2018. Taylor, a gymnast who says she was Brown’s Bible study partner while both attended Central Michigan, stayed in contact with Brown after he reached the N.F.L. and was later hired as his trainer. 

According to the suit, the first alleged incident happened when Brown exposed himself and kissed her without consent inside one of his Pittsburgh-area homes. Later that month, Taylor claims that they were watching a religious program together when he masturbated near her without her knowledge and ejaculated on her back at his Miami home. Taylor also claims that Brown later bragged about this incident in a series of profane text messages, which are included in the lawsuit. 

Taylor says she ended her working relationship with him after that but reconnected with him again after he apologized to her several months later. The suit says she was “swayed by his assurance that he would cease any sexual advances.”

The third incident allegedly happened the following year after a night out at a Miami-area club. The lawsuit claims that Taylor went back to Brown’s Miami home to use the bathroom and grab some food. When she was there, he allegedly “forced her down onto a bed, pushed her face into the mattress, and forcibly raped her.” She claims she tried to resist by screaming and repeatedly shouting “no” and “stop.”

The lawsuit says Taylor told at least three people about the incidents: her mother, Brown’s chef, and a member of her church. 

“As a rape victim of Antonio Brown, deciding to speak out has been an incredibly difficult decision,” Taylor said in a statement released by her lawyer. “I have found strength in my faith, my family, and from the accounts of other survivors of sexual assault.”

The lawsuit says the incidents have left Taylor suffering from “near-daily panic attacks and suicidal ideations.” She is seeking in excess of $75,000 for claims of sexual battery, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and invasion of privacy for unwanted and offensive sexual contact.

NFL Investigation 

The court filing came just a day after Brown joined the Patriots, after requesting a release from the Oakland Raiders last week. The Patriots issued a statement Tuesday night saying the N.F.L planned to conduct its own investigation into the accusations, which Taylor has agreed to cooperate with. 

“We take these allegations very seriously,” the Patriots said. “Under no circumstance does this organization condone sexual violence or assault. The league has informed us that they will be investigating. We will have no further comment while that investigation takes place.”

The league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, has the power to discipline players under a personal conduct policy. The policy does not rely on the outcome of legal proceedings. However, as of now, it’s unclear what steps the N.F.L. will take against Brown if any.

The Washington Post reported that the league will “give serious consideration” to putting Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list, making him ineligible to play. Although if this happens, he would still receive a paycheck since the list is considered a form of paid leave. 

One anonymous source told the Post that placement on the list is something the league “is going to have to focus on” in the coming days. It is still unknown if any decision will be made before the Patriots are scheduled to play again. 

Brown Denies Accusations 

“Mr. Brown denies each and every allegation in the lawsuit,” Brown’s attorney Darren Heitner said in a statement. “He will pursue all legal remedies to not only clear his name but to also protect other professional athletes against false accusations.”

Heitner went on to say the two engaged in a “consensual personal relationship” in 2018.  He also suggested that Taylor’s accusations were motivated by money.

In the statement, Heitner claimed that Taylor approached Brown in 2017, “shortly after Mr. Brown signed a contract making him the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL.”

He said she asked him to invest $1.6 million into a business project, but added that Brown, “was not informer that by his accuser that she had just been levied with a $30,000 IRD tax lien or that $300,000 of the $1.6 million so called ‘investment’ was to be used to purchase property already owned by the accuser and her mother.”

He also added that Taylor traveled to Brown’s resident on several occasions, asked for tickets to a game, and posted a photo of Brown on her social media “in an effort to financially benefit from his celebrity.”

“Mr. Brown, whose hard work and dedication to his craft allowed him to rise to the top of his profession, refuses to be the victim of what he believes is a money grab.”

In a follow-up tweet, Heitner said Brown “will leave no stone unturned and will aggressively defend himself, including all of his rights in countersuits.”

See what others are saying: (ESPN)  (The New York Times) (The Washington Post

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