I know, I know, you’re sick of hearing about the looming Writers Guild of America strike. Well, it’s looming no more. It’s here, and, as you know, the first victims will be shows such as “Late Night with David Letterman”, “The Daily Show”, and even “The Colbert Report”. While some of those shows might stand up to the scrutiny of reruns, I’m guessing there will be a lot of audience loss — though this might very well be a boon for HGTV.
It’s my job to think about the future and writing. Okay, fine, nobody gave me this job; I appropriated it. It’s not like there’s a paid position out there called “Thinker About Future and Writing” anyway. Oh, if there were, I’d find the resume I last updated a decade ago.
So here are today’s thoughts on the issue. This strike is about ongoing compensation for work performed. In the majority of cases, when authors sign a contract with a publisher, they license specific distribution rights for their work for a certain period of time. Depending on the contract, the specific rights and length of time varies. Then there’s the whole of issue of “in print” — a contractually squishy point that some publishers use to retain distribution rights despite the lack of serious exploitation.
When writers turn in their screenplays, they have performed what is essentially a work for hire. They do not retain the copyright — heck, in some cases, due to the way Hollywood handles rewrites and authorship, some writers can barely recognize their original dialogue. What seems to some like an enormous sum of money for a single screenplay is actually not so much money when you consider the amount of time and effort put into that single script.
Residuals and participations came about because long after that initial check (“basic compensation”) is written, the motion picture is sold. This has been a great thing for all of you who wish to own the complete “Seinfeld” on DVD. And those of you who are sleepless in Spain? Oh, yes, you can catch your favorite sitcom, dubbed into Castilian but some things surely cross language barriers. These secondary markets, syndicated television, pay, and home entertainment, are generally profitable for the the studios. This can be good as the initial markets — first run network or pay, theatrical — are not always the break-even or profit makers they once were.
This is all fairly old information, except for the fact that today’s strike is very real.
This is a risky strike. I think the producers didn’t take the writers quite as seriously as they should have. In the last round, the producers got off fairly easy — same old DVD residuals, increased contributions to health funds — and they felt complacent. This time, the writers want a fair share (a concept that still remains undefined), and the other guilds are not going to remain complacent under their existing contracts. What the writers get, the actors, directors, etc will want. This fair share can become expensive for the producers.
Finding common ground — and it will be found — will be very tricky. Both sides will have to settle on some form of a net amount for calculating residuals. Right now, distribution and production costs are not factored into the residual calculation. Since theatrical/first run network are not part of the residual calculation, it’s likely that production and distribution costs for those markets will be excluded, though the producers will likely push for production costs to be recouped. If I were a writer, I’d cry foul — production costs are entirely outside their control.
However, this doesn’t begin to address the fact that writers are not retaining their copyright to their work. Since the real fight is less about DVD than it is new media, I have, naturally, considered this matter of new media as opportunity. One of the hallmarks of the new media explosion is the resurgence of the do-it-yourself ethos. The programming that has exploded thus far on these new distribution platforms has been created by non-industry insiders.
Smart writers will surely take advantage of this strike to create their own productions. The money — if there is money at all (it’s clear that this entire city is betting that this market will be huge, sooner rather than later) — may or may not come. While new distribution infrastructure(s) will be developed (the YouTube model is a starting point), how the money flows will change dramatically.
Quite simply (extremely quite simply), writers, directors, actors, and other participants could share the proceeds based on a predefined percentage of ownership. Costs would be advanced and recovered before payment is made. Yeah, sounds like what’s happening already, doesn’t it? The difference here is that the middleman is eliminated and the shares would likely be higher. Oh, and the dollars will be lower, at least to start.
But the ownership of the project will be in the hands of the creative people. As the studios continue their feverish quest to roll out as many new media distribution channels as possible, writers, etc. of these independent productions will be a position to license (or not to license) their work at more favorable terms. I’m betting that the audience will continue to seek independent, call it non-network, fare despite the avalanche of network content being made available online.
So while they fight for the money that will come from these new distribution modes, writers and other creative professionals should look at the opportunities presented by new media. They can become content producers rather than cogs in the wheel.