December 25, 2007

without fear, hollywood has no viable business model: the t.v. writer's strike

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I've been watching the American TV writer's strike with great interest.

Back in 1999-2000 I spent 5 months in Hollywood, helping a friend out with his "New Media" dotcom [The latter failed miserably, of course, but that's another story]. Having seen the Media landscape evolve so dramatically since then, I have some thoughts on the dispute:

1. What struck me most about living in LA was how nobody talked about "Art". They wanted to talk about "The Industry". Somebody you knew getting a job on the set of Spiderman 3 or Stuart Little 2 was considered hot stuff... even if they were not films you or anyone else you knew would ever want to see yourselves [i.e. even if the movie was kinda lame]. And the equivalent existed in the TV world.

It didn't take me very long to figure out: Hollywood is a factory town. In terms of social hierarchies, it was no different that Detroit, only instead of Ford and GM, we had Universal and Disney. And the guys I knew in it, for all their flashy cars and expensive gym memberships, were nothing more than glorified factory workers. Working on an assembly line. Shipping widgets [in the form of "movies" and "shows"] off to theaters and TV stations around the country. And indeed, they had EXACTLY the same kind of industrial alienation from their craft as the factory workers that Marx and Engels wrote about, over a century before.

2. For all the different kinds of "creative" people in the system, Hollywood has the most rigid class system I have ever encountered. With "The Players" at the top [Spielberg, Lucas, Brad Pitt, Angela Jolie etc], the grunts and the unemployed "Talent" at the bottom, and in between the middle guys: Writers, lawyers, agents, techies, all engaged in a massive cat-fight to get on top, or at least, get on top of their current peer group. It was a very well-mapped-out pyramid. Which is what made meeting people such a foggy experience. They knew that if you could figure out where on the pyramid you lay [not a hard thing to do in under thirty seconds], they'd feel exposed and vulnerable. And the writers I knew, for all the yakkin' I heard about "the integrity" of their craft, were as every bit as complicit in preserving the pyramid scheme as anyone else I met.

In a recent Twitter conversation, Loren Feldman said to me: "I did 10 years in Hollywood, it's a system based on fear, always has been." I agree. And I think it will always be thus. Without fear, Hollywood has no viable business model. Without a large group of young, hungry people willing to take the pyramid/privilege model seriously, Hollywood has no business model. Privilege and fear are never far from one another.

3. In the last 20 years, we've seen an evolution of non-print Media away from "Theatrical" [Both cinema and TV are forms of theater], towards interactive. And the main consequences of that, besides media becoming a two-way conversation instead of a one-way conversation, has made the barriers to entry into creating "Media" a lot lower. And the people who are feeling the pain are the ones who spent the last decade or so trying to figure the pyramid scheme in a time when the world was a different place.

4. In the end, this strike is not about DVD and digital royalties. Ultimately, this strike is about the massive and traumatic erosion of privileges afforded the middle-ranking factory workers. But of course, there's not a damn thing they or their bosses can do to bring those privileges back. The landscape of media is moving away from large studios, to college dorms, downtown lofts, and suburban garages. Like Madison Avenue, Hollywood won't disappear. But also like Madison Avenue, it'll never command the cultural vanguard like it once did.

My conclusion? The ice cap is melting, and all we're seeing here is the penguins deciding to hold a picket line. In news terms, it makes for good theater. But like Hollywood, that's all it is.

[UPDATE:] Thanks to Andrew Denny for leaving the following comment:

Director Mike Figgis made some similar points (and predicted a collapse of the existing Hollywood model) in a wonderful talk on BBC Radio 3 last month entitled: "Is there too much culture?" [55 minutes long]
Just listened to it. Awesome stuff.

Posted by hugh macleod at December 25, 2007 1:14 PM | TrackBack
Comments

I tell this story openly now, but I work around "new media" and intellectual property a lot with folks in Hollywood.

My funny story is, when I was just starting the publishing company I'm with, my assigned editor for my comic book series asked me how I prefer to go about writing my comic book, and I said "Well I usually prefer the Will Eisner method" and she said "Who's Will Eisner?"--- I smacked my head on the phone with her and thought "I'm in trouble!" --- it all worked out though, but it was a very eye-opening experience, that many people out in the Hollywood "industry" don't really know the other industries they're playing in or taking from.

I've had some wonderful conversations about that particular subject-- and I've been told a few times, that it's actually not necessary for everyone in the company to know all about comics, they specialize in other things, etc. That makes sense-- I'd never tell a IT guy how to do his job, and I'm sure there's terms or people I've never heard of. I think if I were running a company though that deals with comics to movies, I'd make everyone, even interns and lawyers, read Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics".

I'm super happy things worked out in my situation though, the editors who didn't KNOW the basic stuff, the meat, of "comics" are long gone for more than a year now. And I breathe an occasional sigh of relief.

Posted by: djcoffman at December 25, 2007 2:51 PM

"In the end, this strike is not about DVD and digital royalties."

Got to disagree to some extent, Hugh.
Sure, the studio's are stood on the metaphorical burning deck but not the writers -- their skills will continue to be required even once all the broadcast tv channels have died.
You don't think they're justified in forcing their claim for a reasonable slice of the non-Theatre production?


@ djcoffman: "I'd make everyone ... read Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics"."
Do you know the name and techniques of the guy who invented the computer you work on?
You mean you haven't even bothered to read "Useless History of the Desktop"?
Oh my!
:-O

Posted by: ceedee at December 25, 2007 3:40 PM

ceecee, I think anyone is entitled to ask for a bigger slice of the pie, if they see fit.

On paper, the writer's cause seems fair enough. But like I inferred, the cause is just a symptom of a much bigger, much more permanent problem i.e. the system they've willingly bought into is no longer delivering the goods, in the quantities they've grown used to.

The fact is, for all the disruption within the Industry this dispute is causing, I have not yet heard one person I know personally complain about the drop in quality of the "content" they're consuming. Which is a lot greater measure of reality than the arguments of their lawyers.

Posted by: hugh macleod at December 25, 2007 4:22 PM

Thanks for the Information

Posted by: Lucy at December 25, 2007 5:32 PM

The world is a constantly changing place, even for the elite in Hollywood. The facts must be faced. Right now, the market is being driven by the internet and more personal means of entertainment or information. The big guys see the winds of change. In a mad dash, they scramble to see how they can maintain their control, buy into or manipulate new aspects of business for their own benefit. You hear the same scuttlebutt among some of the recording artists that are signed with the labels. Some want to compete more effectively with indie radio on the internet even though they enjoy the fruits of the old music distribution system. They are resentful that they are so controlled by the contract they have with their recording label. This was a decision they made. Some may feel that independent artists have no right to anything for any number of reasons. Yet, the indie music industry is not to be envied either except for the fact that it is breaking new ground. The internet and world of communication is in a state of flux. Those that are wise will look for opportunities, but more than anything, the wise will persevere even when things are tough. It all about the money and right now, money is the challenge in many areas. Complaining and quitting accomplish nothing but sour grapes.

Posted by: Elvis Manning at December 25, 2007 5:50 PM

When the winds of change are blowing some build shelters. Others build windmills.

What's the last windmill a union ever built?

Posted by: Mike Peter Reed at December 25, 2007 6:25 PM

I spent 18 months in LA. Liked some of it. However, after I met the love of my life in Chicago and realized that my favorite activity in LA was watching movies at the Hollywood Forever Cemetary, I figured it was time for a move.

At one point, the shallowness became so pervasive and thorough that it actually appeared to approach "depth".

I was at one party in Venice Beach thrown by a number of industry folks who followed each other from project to project over a decade.

At one point, they started talking about the "blue ticket" who unsuccessfully tried to ask one of them out on a date, or the "total pink-ticket" who was observed sitting at the Starbucks that morning.

I naively asked "What's all this pink/blue-ticket talk?"

They half-patiently explained that, when they worked for a major TV talk show, the people who lined up to be part of the studio audience were handed pink and blue tickets as they filed in. Pink-ticketed folks tended to be more conventionally attractive than their blue-ticket counterparts. They were seated accordingly, with the pink-ticket recipients being placed within the sweep of the cameras.

Nothing new, of course. A friend of mine even observed the same ticketing behavior at an Obama rally in Oakland, Calif.

Nevertheless, the experience was somewhat emblematic of my time in El Lay...

Posted by: Phil Gomes at December 25, 2007 7:59 PM

ice-melting analogy is perfect for both hollywood and mad. ave.
incredible when you think how they/we used to have it (the attention of the masses) so sewn up and under control. and still we bitched. advertising derived its outsized cultural clout by financing big TV. no more of that.

i was recently at a commuter train station in chicago with ma fancy new iphone. a prompt asked me if i wanted to join a free Jetblue wifi service. of course i did! thank you jetblue. best brand ad thingy i've encountered in ages.

only problem: it's not glamourous. nobody got a week in shutters creating that little gem. geeks inherit earth etc...

;-)

Posted by: vinny warren at December 25, 2007 8:39 PM

I support the writers for two reasons:
1. They write , and without them we will not have any way to have quality tv or movies available to us.

2. They had a contract, that needs to be upheld period. If you write a book, would you not want fair compensation for your work? 4 cents may seem silly to some, but its just the fair thing to do.
Now i hope the strike ends soon, as I cant stand reality tv, and there are so many who are out of work now.

Posted by: lisa coultrup ( kystorms) at December 25, 2007 9:39 PM

Director Mike Figgis made some similar points (and predicted a collapse of the existing Hollywood model) in a wonderful talk on BBC Radio 3 last month entitled: "Is there too much culture?"

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/freethinking/2007/festival-events/event14/

Well worth a listen. It's also available as a podcast (I've got a copy of the MP3) but I can't find a link to that just now.

Posted by: Andrew Denny at December 25, 2007 11:59 PM

The same thing is happening in the publishing business that is happening in Hollywood. The barriers to entry and the buying patterns of the consumer are morphing. Print-on-demand publishers and other types of self-publishing/small press are making it easy for anyone to write a book. The internet and Amazon.com has made distribution easy.

The "industry" is hanging onto their traditional ways and proclaiming their ways are BEST...meanwhile authors are actively looking at new ways to bring their products to market. And the buyers do not care who published the book any more, they just want good content.

Hollywood's system makes those at the top very rich, so they cling to it (same in publishing and music industries). But change is coming and coming fast.

You are correct that Hollywood as we know it does not "go away", but it becomes a cartoon of itself. There are many other examples of this in other industries as new technologies keep catching on and new habits of the consumers become mainstream.

Personally, I love all the new opportunities that new media technologies bring.

Posted by: thom singer at December 26, 2007 12:58 PM

Great post. I quoted it for a post on my blog (pwnership.com). My thought on the writers strike:

The writers' strike is about the reallocation of revenues away from distributors towards content creators. It's about establishing those economics in the digital market. It's a fight over new territory. It's the 49ers all over again. There be gold in the hills. There be dragons too.

Posted by: Tom Reeves at December 26, 2007 1:35 PM

The industry is changing and insiders are aware of it.

I have seen the recognition slowly seeping through and the strike has finally made EVERYONE see it. For context, I have appeared on over 100 different productions in the past year as a non speaking actor. FYI my type is a blend of what used to be called "silent bit part" and the old "extra" in the days of the screen extras guild but is now is a SAG union actor who does almost everything including delivering the star's baby but has no speaking lines and no credits (ah the wonder of arbitrary union rules...)

The important thing for this discussion though is that I and guys like me work on a different tv show or movie every day and then we do the shows again in a different part and that has given me some unique insights on the industry and the importance of audience numbers.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this career choice now at least for a while, was I felt strongly that I wanted to be involved with productions while they were still big and I saw the change coming 3 years ago. Maybe it was because I had been in some large dot com ventures and had launched several one to many magazines and saw the changes internet one to one connections were bringing to all media.

Figure it this way- with the original Tesla Marconi "one to many" broadcast tower business model, mass audiences create large budgets and interesting sets as well as exorbitant wealth to pay for spectacular sets and fantasies.

As we shift to a many to less than many viewers business model of youtube, more productions will proliferate but working on them will not be an extraordinary experience - just a lot of home sets and rigged greenscreens with average audiences less than a small hometown.

I know I am seeing and living the last of a disappearing industry experience. At least as a COMMON industry experience. Every day on a Clint Eastwood movie like "Changling" on the big backlots at universal where I got to shoot machine guns in the surroundings of the 1920's or the set of the West Wing where walked Martin Sheen for his last time out of a full size replica of the inside of the White House as a presidential secret service agent was that much more of a joy because I knew I was watching the golden oldies from the inside before everyone realized they WERE becoming the oldies. The sets were and are amazing and so was and is the energy and I soak it up. Many others around me didn't realize it will likely be soon lost.

I remember we already had the industry downsize once when I was working production on FBI:The Untold Stories.
For comparision when there were only three networks and no cable productions, everything was bigger. As Susan Sommers of three's company said "I was a star when it really meant something - 40 million people watched you in one night." Cable diluted that audience so there were fewer Dynasties and more Rosannes because sit coms were cheaper. Fbi:The untold stories was show budgeted to exist in that declining network share time - we spent 10 minutes interviewing an agent on a backdrop because it cut that much from production cost of airtime reenactment.

Now a cable show might be "successful" like Californication with about 1 million viewers. That was me in my underwear on the coast driving porsche opening the pilot credits by the way - watch for the edit after David's face.. I guarantee you having a helicopter swooping over you to film to the amazement of other drivers as you drive a porsche down the california coast will likely not be fundable by youtube productions. (I'll never forget that feeling of the heavy whopping sound at the chopper flew in from the sea over my car and then rose like a rocket for those driving shots. That pilot was the chopper pilot who flew the chopper under the bridge for terminator.)

One day on a set I inadvertently figured out what the current "one to many" industry imapct was. To cheer up a compadre who felt down about not having any lines and wondering about the impact of his life as a silent actor without credits, I once added up how many people had probably seen each of us by taking the rough ratings audiences of each tv or movie his and my face had clearly appeared in however briefly and added them up. I got to something like 200 million unique individual viewers in the USA alone for each of us after we had each done about 50 productions. That's more people than saw or even knew Ceasar or most ancient historical figures when they were alive. That kinda cheered him up :-). Think about that for a minute... CEASAR'S and CLEOPATRA'S and MOSES' audience was a small town theater production by comparision to the one to many broadcast economic model we are losing. Wow.

That huge audience just won't be commonly possible in the you tube world with rare exception. Most of my calculated viewers would have been from doing different shows of course with some viewer duplication, but not as much duplication as being on the same show every week and that's kinda the important point. Already today to get those audience numbers I had to do it by appearing over and over in MANY shows and movies. You can't even get that audience by being the LEAD STAR on a single cable show these days. The industry has already so decentralized. In fact a guy like me has been seen by more people than most newly minted tv stars BECAUSE of the fracturing of audiences. More people have probably seen me and will faintly recognize me than the star of say the wizards of waverly place on the disney network (yes I worked that too) or even the third lawyer on boston legal or some network shows because the audiences are so split that some people will NEVER see some "big" shows today. More people recognize Bill Shatner now from the star trek days than the fractured audience of boston legal I'll bet. (He drives big harley sometimes by the way. Occasionally races some crew members to the studio. Funny even in person with Spader and obviously loving life because he doesn't take it too seriously)

Its not like the days of I Love Lucy where EVERYONE had seen Lucille Ball even if they didn't watch the show because there were only three networks to talk about.

And I guarantee you more people will recognize me or someone else like me (although they won't be sure I am not an old classmate...) than will know 99.9% of stars of future youtube videos just because of the numbers of the one to many model. That one to many model is essential to the industry and our culture as we know it and it is disappearing.

It's odd to think about what we are losing though.

Promotion is one thing we will lose and that comes for one to many scales of money. For example one thing my experience proves is that deep recognition or what's called Q comes not from being on screen a lot which I have done, but from the promotion junkets that studios ensure - going on the tonight show, the endless interviews for 5min each with endless celebrity entertainment industry shows etc etc. which I haven't done. I haven't done it because there is no money in it for individual one to many shows to promote me. I'm a "many shows to one" "one to many" audience hybrid so I don't get promoted which is nice.

Those promotion efforts are arranged by the big studios with their one to many money marketing budgets for their one to many stars and they have to endure the crap while I get to be on more shows than they do.

My fun career is a quiet one and I like it, but my secretly famous experience and the knowledge there are a few dozen out there just like me who I work with on different sets every day has taught me that without those "one to many" marketing money departments there won't be as many true long term stars anymore from the world of entertainment. If there will be I would already be a star which thankfully I am not. There will mostly be flashes in the pan because they won't be promoted and they won't even have the viewers I have had.

Promotion not viewers makes fame and then fame makes fame, and fame is a one to many concept that dies in a no marketing budget many to one youtube broadcast world.

Its interesting and important because lack of entertainment stars will change culture and youth in every country that gets tv. Like it or not, much of how we all indentify ourselves (especially when young) comes from aligning ourselves with the roles favorite stars play on the boob tube. Its where most people's mental image of themselves is constructed - a little martin sheen as president(super nice in person) or mylie Cyrus on Hannah Montata (iwas the chauffer once on that show and she's a down home common sense Nashville girl) or Eva Longoria (also super nice and truly fun) today or daniel boone (Fess Parker -good wine now!) in my youth, or whoever people or kids might like and subconsciously emulate without knowing it.

Without the one to many money for entertainment celebrities we will only be left with big business executives and politicians (nearly the same now) who will have recognizability staying power because they still have the one to many business model supporting their publicity efforts and that may be scary. Imagine donald trump with less personality and even more profit motive for every appearance and you'll know the visually available role model celebrity of the future.

One thing could swing it all back though and that is if the telecoms are successful in charging googles to carry their data from their sites to the consumer through the wires they have monopolized- the so called net nuetrality changes. If so it will stay one to many entertainment as the youtubes business model will die and control of what people see will go back to those who control the one to many broadcast pipelines and methods. People underestimate that possibility of reversion as legislation is moving that way now in the court decisions. It is possible the open internet will die instead of the one to many broadcast model. This last ten years of the open internet might be the aberation and not consolidated control of broadcasting.

But if it doesn't happen (and I hope it doesn't even though it will limit my future earning power through) what i see these days - the big sets and big personalities will become dwindle feed - A slow mulch of disentregration as we become consumed with well written and acted but no flashy extras story lines that are seen by a few thousand people on youtube.

Even the you tube breakout videos like later "lonely girls" will leave us wondering "yeah her face is familiar but who is she?" just like lonely girl did.

That's why I urge everyone to hope the writers get a new contract along the old lines because then it will all get extended from the studios for another 5 years or so.
Without the writers the networks will accelerate the writers and actors shift to self produced many to less than many youtube programs.

But whatever happens enjoy the big budget stuff we have now because it is an aberation caused by the limits of early technology which necessitated one to many broadcasts that temporarily gave rise to a pyramid of money and all the glitter and personal and production extravagance that brought with it. It was an aberattion in time that tesla and marconi started and is ending with marc andresen and the world wide web browser and server.

Thank goodness Tesla cared about broadcasting and not one to one mail or we might have had youtube first.

That's my take on all this from the inside. And hey now I have even gotten to experience walking a few picket lines - something that I thought was dead and buried from the seventies but unfortunately is needed in almost every industry now. But I'll treasure those experinces too because hollywood has some of the last strong unions and maybe those will die along with the one to many broadcast model. So I enjoy every picket line.

We only have a few decades on this planet each and I would soak up as much of it all as you can because some of it is changing and you will miss it when it is gone even though you love to criticize it now.

And if you see a guy you think you know on the street one day- well its probably me and it's been fun even if it doesn't last another one to many contract period.
You can reach me over at www.vivzizi.com if you want.

George F. Watson
aka "Fitch" but never credited and I'm ok with that

"My phone with which this has been posted has a two inch keyboard so I don't care to correct mispellling."

Posted by: at December 26, 2007 3:04 PM

They don't have automation to worry about though. Interactive and reality based programming may increase, but that will not lessen the demand for the theatrical. Talent and money to pay for it will always constitute a barrier more significant than technology. While the industry will continue to change, the demand for writers will expand, rather than shrink. That puts them in a fundamentally different situation from factory workers.

Posted by: Lord at December 26, 2007 8:35 PM

In the '50s my dad was a famous show business lawyer in NYC. He wanted to move to Hollywood, but my mother wouldn't go. She said it was no place to raise a family. She thereby rescued us from a life of inanity.

Later, both my daughters cruised through L.A. on their way to their "real"lives, each of them feeling ugly, alienated and impoverished during their entire sojourns, because one was a law student and the other wasn't in the "industry."

Last night a musician relative of ours said the same thing: he's "done" with L.A. even though he probably should be there for his music. He couldn't stand the lifestyle.

Can't really compare Hollywood to Detroit; Detroit had some sense of morals and ethics.

Posted by: francine hardaway at December 26, 2007 11:20 PM

Thank you for opening my eyes. I have been wondering "What's all this fuss about?" from the beginning. It was like watching a modern-art play while the audience around me were applauding it with cheers. Startling, I am staring at the audience, not the play itself.
"The ice cap is melting, and all we're seeing here is the penguins deciding to hold a picket line." summarizes the whole situation perfectly. We are observing the beginning of the end of an era, and THAT makes the biggest entertainment Hollywood has recently produced.

Posted by: Isao at December 27, 2007 12:33 AM

Any industry that has lost its soul and works to uphold merely the institutions can be said to have a factory mentality. Hollywood no longer dabbles in new ideas—it is a factory. Detroit is the same as it recycles old concepts. New York fashion, to some extent, is the same.

Posted by: Jack Yan at January 1, 2008 1:00 PM