So Much For The Summer

August 14th, 2007 · 1 Comment
by Kassia Krozser

Okay, I admit it. I was looking forward to a more contentious summer. A summer filled with knock-down, drag-out fights. You know, the stuff in movies. By the ones who make the movies.

To date, the negotiations between the Writers’ Guild and the studios have been remarkably, boringly civil. Which is to say, they’ve been almost non-existent. After starting off strong, the two sides exchanged a few blows before retreating to their relative corners. The studios, who had (rather lamely) introduced a plan to do a “study” took their offer off the table. Probably because any study that ends with a proposal that bases payment rates on a net proceeds type formula was going to be seen as too little, far too late for the writers.

And, you know, the chances of the studios coming back with anything less than a net-based proposal wasn’t going to happen.

Bottom line is that the industry is rapidly changing. What seemed antithetical five years ago is considered status quo. This means that minisodes and mobisodes and just about any other way someone can invent for slicing and dicing content into short attention span-length chunks is fair game. There are dollar signs in them there executive eyes.

The writers, knowing the fate of writers throughout history, know that with innovations in content distribution come new opportunities for the proverbial shaft. Suddenly the line to be crossed is not so much the percentage of the percentage that will be paid out, but whether or not the content even qualifies for payment. Someone out there still needs to define the line between paid content and promotional material.

Needless to say, each side of the battle has a clear, concise definition in mind. That the two are like left and right is not surprising. There is a sense that this current negotiation is much ado about nothing. After all, when you look at the numbers, digital media — downloads and whatnot — comprises a very small portion of any studio’s revenue stream. “Why not wait?” these not-so-worried warts ask.

The writers know why not to wait. They waited too long on video. Far too long. By the time anyone got serious about negotiating for truly better residuals, the world had changed again. And again before the next negotiation’s catered menu was set. The writers want to stake their claim — a bigger share of the residuals pie — now, before it’s too late.

The producers, directors, and actors all want this issue settled, generally in favor of the writers, for their own reasons. You know the old saying: where goes the WGA, so follows SAG. And DGA. And pretty much every other guild in town.

The studios don’t want this to happen. Motion picture economics have changed. Theatrical runs aren’t quite as lucrative as breathless Monday morning box office grosses suggest. DVDs? Well, in their lust to build up competition between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, the studios are well on the path toward alienating their customers. Television has become a diluted, less influential, and, unfortunately, poorer distribution channel. As in the case of the music industry, digital media sales aren’t keeping pace with the drop-off in other markets.

I am not entirely sure that the the studios realize how much opportunity there is for writers these days. As the cost of production has risen in major houses, the cost of production has declined in the real world. It is not an understatement to say that any idiot with a camera can make a movie. However, as we all know, once you get beyond the fart jokes and the funny dogs jumping up and down, consumers seek something more substantive.

That’s where the writers hold the power. Maybe some will make a fortune creating truly independent, heck, avant garde, products, likely most won’t. Pretty much, that’s how it works in Hollywood today, anyway. There simply aren’t enough paid slots for everyone out there writer, producing, creating. As always, the ones with the serious drive will push forward.

The difference these days is distribution. Once upon a time, getting your work into the major distribution stream required deep pockets. These days, if you can’t get into the water, you cut your own channel. With better distribution comes increased opportunity, and while I believe that there is a desire for quality production — no matter what the media — I also believe there is a strong audience tolerance for those who embrace the DIY ethos.

It should also be noted that agents and producers and everyone are scouring the web for new talent. Sure, they have plenty of old talent just waiting around for the opportunity to prove themselves…without the pressure of “notes” from executives who understand bottom line but not creativity. But the seeking of the new is part of the human condition. And even as studios are negotiating (or will be negotiating soon), they are looking beyond the system for the Next Big Thing.

So as the writers fight for bigger money — and I think they’re going to set the precedent by getting it, but the whole calculation will be overly messy and complex — the business and economic model of Hollywood is changing. The machine as we know it will continue to function quite nicely for the time being, but the dollars will shift dramatically.

And by dramatically, I’m thinking the shift will go more to those creators outside the system rather than inside.

File Under: Square Pegs

1 response so far ↓

  • Mitzi // Aug 15, 2007 at 2:40 am

    It amazes me how the person who “makes” the product, the writer, gets the least reimbursement and, unless they’re a supername, less credit.

    Why should the movies be different than anyother venue that uses (in all senses of the word) a writer?