Comments on the TV and Movie Writers’ Strike and New Media

Update 12/9/2007:
I actually met a striking writer today and although we did not speak at length on this topic, she made me think that maybe I don’t totally know all of the details of how the business works. If that is so, please forgive me. See the FAQ here. If anything, let some of this server as the rhetoric some executives speak with behind closed doors.

My uncle is a high-ranking executive in the TV business. On Thanksgiving, my brother (who is an independent director) and I asked him for his opinion of the writers’ strike.

He says that writing scripts for TV and movies for most writers is work made for hire, aka “work for hire”. This means the writers are paid to write, and they do not receive royalties (unfortunately, this is just like in any other non-creative job). The studios are taking the financial risk on the idea, while the writers get paid no matter what happens. The Studios and maybe an executive can loose millions, but at least their employees can pay their mortgage and feed their family. The writers are not risking any capitol. And I doubt many writers that belong to a union can’t afford to work on speculation (meaning they will get paid only if the production makes a profit). Update: I changed my mind. Asking the writers to take and advance and then share in the risk is not too much to ask of the studios.

So, it sounds like the writers want a model similar to that of the music business. However, there are reporting and payment agencies in place to pay music writers and musicians for publishing and mechanicals. But there are none for TV and movie writers. So, am wandering who the writers think are going to make these new organizations come about? Maybe the WGA needs to turn into a BMI/ASCAP/Harry Fox. Update: Apparently, that is what WGA is. The studios will not want this because it is just going to make their administrative costs go up with no benefit. As we can also see in the music business, some musicians are discovering they do not need VC from traditional record labels and publishing/mechanical license management and payment from third parties. Creatives can do this by themselves. The means of production (home studios) and distribution (the internet and mp3) have fallen so low that people can do almost everything by themselves. The same can be said of video with inexpensive digital cameras, editing software and free distribution platforms like YouTube. Of course, one will also need talents as creative business model developers.

It seems that true writing and production talent will find a way to profit, while the rest will earn a middle-class income using their creativity by getting paid by a company that has the capitol, but not the talent. It is the very internet that that are complaining about that has made competition tougher, and the striker’s case weaker. A lot of new talent in the form of video blogs (aka serialized video, video podcasts) is finding its way to the net to compete with TV and movies. In some cases, internet video is making the jump to TV or getting acquired by traditional media, such as in the case of WallStrip which was acquired by CBS in May of this year or Quaterlife which was acquired by NBC in November of this year.

If the writer’s strike does not end soon, the TV and movie production ecosystem will look very different than the way it does today. Studios could outsource writing to areas outside of LA and NYC (say, maybe the Midwest or other areas where the cost of living is less) and have them collaborate online and telecommute.

My suggestions is these striking writers to team up with agents a new type of talent agency. New types of talent agents could crop up to represent teams of writers. The agents can negotiate deals with studios. Or maybe studios just need to start profit sharing with all employees to break the deadlock.

Update: OK, I change my argument. The studios need the writers more than the writers need the studios. So the studios should understand the fundamental changes in the business and adapt their business models, giving a bigger cut to the writers.

Check out the comments in this post on Defamer for some of my inspiration on this post.

Check out these pictures at a special event I attended, The Winnies, a self congratulatory party for video bloggers and fan’s that took place in the middle of Hollywood and during the strike. It was quite surreal to be a part of something new that is taking place while at the same time and palace geographically, something old might be on its way out.

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