What’s Good For the Directors Isn’t Necessarily Good For the Writers

January 21st, 2008 · 1 Comment
by Kassia Krozser

Though it goes against my very nature, I have resisted commenting on the recently reached DGA/AMPTP accord — the settlement of contractual issues between the Director’s Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers — to let the deal points sink in. Not surprisingly, this period of reflection hasn’t changed my initial position: good for producers, lousy for talent.

No one individual can say, “I own this.”

I go into this in great detail at Medialoper, but want to address some writer-specific points here. First, while the DGA deal might very well be historic in that the producers have doubled the rate paid on electronic sell-through product, the calculation is still based on 20% of every dollar the producers receive. If DVDs represented the Holy Grail of revenue streams, then online represents heaven. No two ways about it.

During his recent Macworld keynote speech, Steve Jobs noted that Apple had sold 125 million television shows. It’s important to understand this number. Limited market, limited programming options (not every studio in town is allowing their product to be sold via iTunes), and, let’s be honest, everything being sold is or has been available for free in other venues, HBO and other subscription services excepted.

These sales are coming on top of traditional revenue streams. Advertisers and subscribers still cover production costs, though I believe online sales and rentals will begin the balance the loss of advertising dollars very soon. It boggles the mind that the producers continue to insist that sell-through product be calculated and paid in the same manner — with slight movement on the actual percentages paid — as negotiated in 1982.

I get that the producers don’t want to give away money. They need this money to create other product. In all entertainment industries, more profitable product helps subsidize less profitable. This allows entities to take risks. And studios, like publishers, have a lot of mouths to feed, rent to pay, water, gas, and electricity bills.

My problem is, if I may, that writers turn over their copyright to their creative product to the studio. This makes sense. The words are the property of the writer, the visual output is the property of the director, the characterization is the property of the actor, and the behind-the-scenes efforts are the property of a host of individuals. Each and every person involved in a motion picture production has a creative stake in the project. No one individual can say, “I own this.”

Thus the studios/producers assert ownership. They maximize the profitability of their products through endless sales and exploration of new markets. They acknowledge the creative contribution of the team behind the production through ongoing residuals and participations payments. But the economics are shifting. In asking the writers to relinquish their copyright, the studios must acknowledge that fair ongoing compensation is due to the creative mind behind the production.

Let’s put this another way: while there are sales people and others who certainly do contribute to the never-ending revenue stream, without the actual product to sell, there is nothing. Residuals are not a benefit, they are payment for exploitation of material that should be be copyrighted by an individual.

What if writers acted more like playwrights, holding on to the copyright and receiving payment when a show is produced? This will not happen in the Hollywood I know and love. Too many parties have vested interest in motion picture production.

The 20% base for paying on sell-through product remains a hard-to-argue-with-a-straight-face position on the part of the studios. I like the 1.2% on distributor’s gross for rental product reached by the DGA. That makes sense. Sell-through should be treated in the same manner. Streaming — advertising supported streaming — put a pin in that one. Let’s pretend it falls under first-run broadcast for the next three years and see how it goes. Right now, those online advertising dollars aren’t making wallets bulge even though they are extra revenue for the studios.

What the directors tout as historic isn’t so much when you see what concessions were reached. Maybe this deal meets the needs of the DGA members, but until there’s true movement on that 20% base, I don’t see how it’s great for the writers.

File Under: Square Pegs

1 response so far ↓

  • Anna // Jan 25, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Totally agree!
    Unfortunately, I have the impression everyone wants others to work for free while he/she gets the money and writing is a creative job so it’s even easier than with other jobs to say “work harder” cos most people think writing is no hard job so should not be adequately paid!