Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay are among about 300 writers who are supporting dissidents challenging the union's leadership in upcoming elections over its handling of contentious negotiations with agents.

"Our union is strong enough to endure honest differences of opinion voiced by writers who are loyal to the guild and its mission, who are driven by their concern for our most vulnerable members, but who believe there is a different way to achieve our shared goals," the group said in a letter released Friday morning.

The letter was endorsed by dozens of prominent writers and producers including John Wells, Scott Frank, Steve Levitan, Aaron Sorkin, David Benioff and Rodrigo Garcia.

Such high-level support gives a significant boost to dissidents in upcoming board elections and highlights widening fissures inside the 12,000-member union over tactics for combating widely unpopular agency practices.

The statement reflects mounting frustration within the guild over the lack of progress in negotiations to end a three-month standoff that has pitted writers against their agents and threatened to disrupt Hollywood productions early next year.

When guild leaders instructed union members to "fire" their agents in April after the sides could not reach agreement on a new code of conduct, they did so with overwhelming support. Many writers are unhappy with longstanding industry practices such as packaging _ lucrative fees that agencies collect for assembling talent on TV shows instead of paying a 10% commission _ and they wanted to give their union leverage in negotiations. Now, some of those writers are regretting it, citing the widening gulf between the groups.

The WGA sued the largest four agencies, and in return three sued the WGA back in a legal battle that could take years to resolve.

While the union's talks with the Association of Talent Agents have stalled, the guild is negotiating with individual agencies and has gotten three ATA members to break ranks. WGA has signed up more than 70 agencies, but none of the biggest ones have agreed to the guild's terms.

In their letter, the group of writers said while many agency practices are in need of reform, they "believe this present situation is best resolved in a negotiating room and not in a courtroom."

The group has also expressed concern that the conflict with the talent agencies may not be resolved in time for its negotiations with the major studios for a new film and TV contract to replace one that expires in June.

"We are facing a critical negotiation with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), a fight that has huge financial consequences for our members especially in the area of residuals, and we believe this battle is best fought by a united, forward-thinking guild that is not entrenched in lawsuits."

The group is pushing for Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy to become the next president of WGA West, along with her slate that includes "Chernobyl" writer Craig Mazin as vice president and military veteran and writer Nick Jones Jr. as secretary-treasurer. Nagy's slate is running against incumbent President David Goodman, showrunner for the Fox TV series "The Orville," and Vice President Marjorie David.

In addition to Nagy, veteran writer William Schmidt is also challenging Goodman for president. Schmidt said he would like the union to get back to the negotiating table with the ATA. While it's possible that he and Nagy could split the votes of dissenters, Schmidt says how people vote will still send a message.

"If Phyllis and I get more votes than Goodman gets, that says something," Schmidt said earlier this week.

Goodman said in an interview Thursday that he believes the majority of members are supportive of the current strategy, but he acknowledged that dissent has grown.

"I think it's going to be a tough race for me," Goodman said. "I don't think in any way it will be easy. I hope that the members support me and what I and the rest of the leadership have been trying to do, but you know, it's their decision."

He noted that more individual talent agencies, including Buchwald, have accepted agreements with the WGA outside of the ATA.

"As of right now, I don't know why we would change that strategy since it's working," Goodman said. " It's slow, but it's working."

The election results will be announced Sept. 16.

___

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

_____

PHOTOS (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): DuVernay, Rhimes, Murphy

Los Angeles Times