Television

Syndicalism on Sunset Blvd.

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The L.A. Times' Patrick Goldstein argues that the writers' strike "is about new media yet both sides seem to be following old-school models." He proposes an alternative:

The stars became free agents long ago. In the last few years, with billions of private-equity dollars flooding the business, the studios have lost their lock on financing too.

All that's left is marketing and distribution. It's hard to equal the way studios launch their summer popcorn extravaganzas with a $40-million marketing blitz. But as more entertainment migrates to the Internet, where distribution is basically free to anyone with a computer, the studios will lose that monopoly as well. If the last couple of weeks are any indication, with clips from out-of-work comedy writers popping up every day, the Web could be littered with new must-see video sites by Christmas. Remember: After barely a year in existence, YouTube was bought by Google for $1.65 billion. On the Internet, good ideas travel fast….

The WGA is fighting the good fight. But the glory days of "Norma Rae" are gone. Real change in today's world comes from the energy and ideas of entrepreneurs, not from labor negotiations. To take control of their work, writers have to cut out the middleman.

Goldstein isn't anti-strike, by the way. He thinks it could be the crisis that forces the issue:

This kind of creative freedom already exists in Silicon Valley, where the creators of product are its owners. Software entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, who helped found Netscape, makes an eloquent argument on his blog that a prolonged strike could undermine the studios' control of production and distribution, ushering in a new showbiz model built in the image of Silicon Valley.

Andreessen's argument is here.

There's plenty to quibble with here. But Goldstein's column and Andreessen's post are the most thought-provoking things I've read about the strike, even though neither answers the most important question: How many episodes of King of the Hill are already in the can?

[Hat tip: Sara Rimensnyder.]

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  1. How many episodes of King of the Hill are already in the can?

    Get your fucking priorities straight, Walker. What about Battlestar Galactica? Smallville? It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? The Shield?

  2. We’ll Rise Again!

  3. Seriously. I just got a BSG bump, but it’s only got me jonesing for more.

  4. I wonder to what extent the sort of box-office failure of Serenity will play into this. Even an insano fanbase and a pretty serious effort at word-of-mouth marketing couldn’t get a great-but-hart-to-market movie to make money. The finance is out of studio control, but only because they’ve still got a high-revenue channel for the content. Is the internet such a threat to that? It is for overall revenues, but not necessarily for high-dollar content.

  5. If writers become owners rather than serfs, then they will likely exert more control over the end-product, no?

    And God knows Hollywood could use some, you know, creative people pushing back against the dickheads from finance who try to cram everything into forumulaic sequels.

  6. The internet will not be the WGA’s friend.

    The studio / star system is the only reason anyone in the WGA makes any money at all.

    The quality difference between the writers making a living as WGA writers and the next 1000 people in line is minimal. And behind that 1000 there’s another group of about 100x more that are a quality step down, but who don’t know it. Eliminate the gatekeepers [as the internet does] and that 101,000 people will compete for eyeballs with the WGA writer, to everyone’s detriment.

    The internet wants content to be free, not only because it makes it so easy to steal / copy content, but also because it sets free every clueless amateur to push out his own content, and the bad content drowns out the good. If the studio and star system goes, there’s no model available to replace it that won’t look like doing a Google search for fan-written shipper content. And that doesn’t look like a good way for WGA writers to make a living.

  7. For some reason this does not seem to be as big a deal as when the Film Actors Guild calls for a strike.

  8. Somebody actually gives a damn about Hollywood labor issues. Wow!

  9. The big studios control the process of making movies now because they put up all the money for creating and distributing movies. If a 100 million dollar movie tanks, the studios eat that, not the writers or anyone else.

    I think this system persist because traditionally it is has been very difficult to bootstrap a movie. The financial process of making movies is more like that financing a skyscraper than that of financing a doughnut shop. The former is massive and useless until completed. With the latter, one can start small and expand as income expands.

    I think pay-per-view will help create a bootstrap environment for all forms of media. People with new ideas can start small and grow in sync with their success.

  10. As we know, the MPAA goes after college students for ‘illegally downloading’ movies. Their justification is that students are stealing, and thereby depriving the creators of their just desserts. At the same time, the WGA is striking because they aren’t getting their just desserts. Is it just me, or is there some kind of contradiction here?

  11. No matter how much content is free on the internet, people will still want to see professionally done movies, because let’s face it, 99.9% of the amateur stuff is pure, unadulterated crap.

  12. Yes, nothing on the internet can compare with the works of geniuses like Joel Schumaker and Michael Bay.

  13. Goldstein is anti-labor.

    Goldstein is an enemy of the state.

    Goldstein sabotages good movies and makes them suck.

    Let us contemplate, for five minutes, how much we hate Goldstein.

  14. Jesse,

    According to a TAG post from a few weeks ago, all the KOTH episodes have been written and only await animation. I don’t know if that information has changed. While I feel that the show is past its prime (last night’s episode was a prime example of the lazy “crazy liberal guy comes to town” rut the show has fallen into), it was always an underappreciated animated show (and a great conservative show) I am glad to know it will conclude with its intended finale.

    I only read Andreesen’s piece, and I guess I remain ambivalent by the argument that Funny or Die is the future of scripted entertainment. I don’t disagree that the old model is failing, but I don’t see Andreesen’s model as that great a boon for writers. I guess I consider the situation analogous to musicians: The internet is good for creating buzz for a new band or singer, but the only way to capitalize on that buzz is by extensive touring. If you’re an established artist (Radiohead, Prince) or have an extensive back catalogue (The Dead) then you may do alright with direct marketing. But I don’t see a similar capitalization opportunity for writers. Contra Andreesen, I guess I think the current studio system will simply be replaced by a different one. In fact, despite what some say, I often wonder if the old Hollywood studio system could make a comeback, only in a somewhat scaled down form.

    Anon

  15. Shannon is right. Screenwriters can’t go around the studios since they don’t have a product they can sell to end users directly. Cost-wise the script is one of the smaller inputs into a movie or TV series, especially when the movie calls for special effects or high end casting.

    The comparisons to popular music don’t hold. Most popular music acts play live for a while before they record albums, so the writers and musicians are already organized as distinct entity that is capable of producing a marketable product which they simply need to get recorded to distribute. Also, recording equipment costs are a bigger part of album production than movie production, so the improved quality and reduced cost of AV equipment impacts music much more. Songs, a band, a studio, and a recording engineer or two is all it takes to put together an album. A movie requires a lot more people and gear – the audio work for the movie alone will be more labor intensive than the production for your average LP.

    Slightly off topic:

    I think the collectively bargained nature of the residuals agreements to be part of the reason they’re so low. The importance of the quality of the writers varies greatly from movie to movie, but the residuals are fixed, so the up-front compensation is where all the extra pay for the better writers will be concentrated. This is particularly odd since movies that rely on strong writing generally have longer shelf lives than ones that rely more on big-name celebs or special effects.

  16. There are 10 episodes of Battlestar Galactica in the can, in case you’re wondering.

  17. And God knows Hollywood could use some, you know, creative people pushing back against the dickheads from finance who try to cram everything into forumulaic sequels.

    As it is, TV is better than film nowadays because TV is driven by creator/writers rather than directors and teams of writers all rewriting each other’s drafts.

  18. Kung Fu Monkey has a more thoughtful response to Andreesen. This may also be of interest.

    Anon

  19. Second Anon: Thanks for the Kung Fu Monkey links. I’ll digest the first one and maybe post some more about it later on. As for the second — believe it or not, I mostly agree with it. The union in question is part of the market process, I have no philosophical opposition to it, and I hold no brief for the studios here. I’m interested in the Andreessen/Goldstein scenario as a possible long-term (but maybe not so long-term) development.

    First Anon: Thanks for the King of the Hill info. I agree that last night’s episode phoned it in, but I thought the one before that, with Hank teaching business virtues to the food co-op, was hilarious.

    Now…do you know how many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy are in the can? It’s my wife’s favorite show, and I have to admit I’ve gotten hooked on it myself.

  20. Now…do you know how many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy are in the can? It’s my wife’s favorite show, and I have to admit I’ve gotten hooked on it myself.

    There will be 11 episodes total, which left 2 to go of Nov. 9, which means you’ve run out unless Thanksgiving programming preempted an episode. And now I shall laugh at you for getting hooked on that show and its dumber-than-dogshit characters.

  21. Thanks, Franklin. There’s at least one more episode in the wings — we saw previews for it — so I guess there was a preemption somewhere along the line.

    As for the dumber-than-dogshit characters: Obviously Torchwood dulled my tolerance.

  22. the Internet, where distribution is basically free to anyone with a computer

    Not really true. The bandwidth required to distribute high-definition movies to a mass audience would not be cheap.

    Still Goldstein’s main point is correct. The bandwidth wouldn’t be cheap, but it’s not so prohibitive that only a major studio could afford it.

  23. Ive said many times that almost any action movie can be improved by cutting out one car chase, pocketing half the money and spending the other half on a decent writer.

    How that applies to this, I dont know.

  24. The success of Sky Captain may indicate that the capital outlays for film editing are also in steep decline. It’s often argued by institutionalist economists (a good example is Luigi Zingales) that worker-ownership is the ideal way to lower agency costs when the importance of human capital increases relative to that of physical capital in an enterprise.

    A slightly more radical version of the same argument is used by peer production advocates like Yochai Benkler.

    In journalism and entertainment, minimum capital outlays well into the hundreds of thousands of $$ acted as market entry barriers that restricted control of an industry to a handful of gatekeeper corporations, with corporate organizations based on control of the physical assets. Since digital production and network culture have reduced the costs of production and distribution by several orders of magnitude, and reduced capital outlays to a few thousand $$ at most (the basic piece of equipment being the PC), the only basis for control by the old gatekeepers is their ownership of so-called “intellectual property.” And since IP laws are becoming damn near unenforceable, those dinosaurs are headed for the tar pit.

  25. Jesse,

    All the Anons are me. But I realize you have no way of verifying that. And you and your wife may find this grid useful for anything else beyond Grey’s.

    I’ve missed a few KOTH episodes, and I heard the Cotton episode from a few weeks ago wasn’t bad either. I’m on the lookout for reruns.

    As for Torchwood, it may be the only show on the air whose poor writing actually angers me while I watch it. On the other hand, Torchwood does seem like a great place to work, since there’s absolutely nothing you can do that will get you fired. Not even attempted murder or, more surprisingly, attempted suicide.

    I like KFMonkey’s take on things, too, primarily because he seems to have a better handle on infrastructure and realistic timelines — but that may just be confirmation bias. I also recognize there should be a distinction made between TV and Film distribution issues. I don’t agree with this post by the Mystery Man on Film, but I could see how it might have some appeal to film-but-not-TV folks.

    Looking forward to your follow-up.

    Anon

  26. One might question whether passive forms of entertainment are really the future at all, whether on TV or the Internet. If I were a leading-edge writer, I’d be trying to think of ways to incorporate my craft/art into the world of interactive entertainment.

    So far, console-based video games mostly fall into the boring and unimaginative world of first-person shooters. There has to be a way to adapt this medium to provide entertainment for someone other than a 13-year-old boy. I think many writers would be loathe to share their creative process with the audience, however.

  27. i’m sure there are plenty of new eps of “king of the hill” in the can. bobby acts gay, luann blubbers, and boomhauer mumbles. hi-larious.

    i’m sure this is fascinating stuff to some. are the writers labor or independent contrtactors, what about the internet, etc. all i know is, if this strike kills “cavemen” and if i never have to hear “that’s what i’m talkin’ about” uttered on TV again, i hope the strike lasts forever.

    i’m all for freedom. i just wonder why, when it comes to pop culture, freedom = crap? the race to the bottom in entertainment will continue, strike or no strike.

  28. Goldstein makes some excellent points, but it’s strange to see him framing the situation as either/or.

    Certainly, there are big changes going on that could liberate Hollywood creative people from the studios more and get them working with money people more, and writers should take advantage of that.

    But studios aren’t going to go away. They’re still going to distribute most of the movies that get a mass audience and take in serious money, and there are still going to be writers working for them. Ergo, the writers should get a cut of the revenue made from internet distribution, just like from theater distribution, when the studios use the film to make money on the internet.

  29. Firstly, I’d like to offer my support for all you Hollywood writers! Secondly, anyone interested in syndicalism in America should check out the Industrial Workers of the World at iww.org. Over a hundred years old, with a proud tradition of fighting for workers low and high, it has been the representative of international syndicalism in the USA.

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