The Writer’s Strike and Restructuring

Most people know I’m a big fan of stories and such. I love television and movies, I love editing the bad ones in my head and watching well crafted ones created. I’ve been watching the writer’s guild strike with some interest, not for the impact on current shows and projects, though I really hope the Daily Show returns soon, but for the broader impact it will have on the industry in the future. One of the reasons the studios are fighting so hard on this strike is that more potential strikes are on the horizon with the actor’s and director’s contracts coming up for negotiation. If the studios can ‘win’ this strike they’ll be going into those contract negotiations with a big tactical advantage.

Both of the two big sticking points have to do with residuals. During the last big writer’s strike in the late 80s the home video market was still emerging as an important market. It wasn’t really well understood by any of the parties involved, and the writers agreed to approximately 0.36% of the gross of video sales. This formula was subsequently applied to DVD sales, which on a $20 DVD works out to be a little more than 7 cents. With the huge boom in the DVD market a few years ago, with DVD sales even now producing the bulk of the revenue for most movies, writers really felt screwed out of their fair share. Now the writers would like to increase that residual, as much as doubling it (up to 15 cents for a $20 DVD).

However, the studios respond, the DVD industry is in a pretty steep decline. With services like Netflix, people are just renting movies and returning them, allowing a relatively few copies of DVDs to service a much broader population. My own DVD collection can easily be separated into before Netflix (which takes up a few shelves) and after Netflix (which is only half a dozen DVDs or so). Another factor working against DVD sales is downloading episodes off the internet. Even the legal methods of obtaining movies and television online are pretty cheap and easy. Places like iTunes will let you download an entire season of some shows for a fraction of what you’d pay for a boxed DVD set. 

The second sticking point for the Writer’s strike is getting a piece of the New Media market, and they consider it the more important of the two. Various studio proposals have included that the writers weren’t entitled to anything, or possibly back to the old VHS formula again. Lately the studios have said they don’t want to pin themselves down to anything more until they have a chance to see what the impact of new media will be on the industry. As reasonable as this last position is, it’s almost exactly what they said in the 80s with VHS, which is how the writers got stuck with the formula they’ve got now. Writers are generally adopting the attitude of ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’

Studios are saying that there really isn’t much profit to spread around to writers, and one of the hard realities of this conflict is that they’re right. People aren’t going to the movies much any more. It’s very expensive, and the experience just isn’t as impressive any more. Home entertainment technology is starting to approach a theater quality experience with large screen television and surround sound and the rest. Why spend $20 bucks to go see a movie when your investment in your home entertainment system will let you watch it for the cost of a DVD forever, or a couple bucks for a rental fee.

Furthermore, much of the budget of a movie is now going towards big ticket performers. An actor or director can demand $15 million to participate in a movie, and a large share of the residuals to boot. The studios feel that the actor or director will pay for themselves, bringing in not only established quality but an established fan base. It makes me think of people winning the acting lottery, where the majority of actors make a decent living and the few big winners live like emperors.

Good screenwriters aren’t nearly as well known as actors or directors. I doubt I could pick somebody like William Goldman (Princess Bride) out of a lineup, but many readers here at Geek Buffet can recite whole scenes of that film verbatim. George Lucas didn’t write the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back (my favorite of the trilogy), despite coming up with the story. Adapted screenplays from novels are rarely written by the original authors themselves. Could you name the screenplay writer for the Harry Potter film series without looking it up? 

Even so, the writers are one of the critical components of storytelling process. Directors have the difficult job of getting the most out of his actors, and using his crew to produce the story, actors have the difficult job of bringing their characters and their worlds to life. They all have to work with the story, though, and to a large extent with the words provided to them by the writers. Bad directors and actors can turn even brilliant writing into a mess (look at the various bad Shakespeare adaptations that are out there). Good actors and directors can make even a mediocre script into something entertainingly camp (many superhero films). You need all three legs of the stool, though for good storytelling.

So the studios are right when they say that there isn’t much money to go around, and writers are right that they’re not getting a fair share of the pie. It’s not that people aren’t consuming less entertainment, far from it, it’s just that the revenue streams are starting to come from different places. With revenue lessening, and budgets rising, what’s the answer?

One potential, and unfortunately likely outcome is a continuing escalation of the current model. Greater reliance on things that don’t require writers, and maybe even actors. Reality television, news, sports. Special effects laden blockbusters with laughable stories and terrible dialogue but hundreds of millions in pretty computer graphics. It vaguely reminds me of the breakfast cereal industry. Not a lot of nourishment, but tons of sugary treats and flashy packaging.

I personally would like a different model. I think computer graphics are overrated. Yes they can become very lifelike, but they don’t substitute for a good story. You can have something like a Pixar film, brilliant story brilliantly executed, but you can also have something like the large number of computer animated kids movies which are so bad they make you want to smother yourself in a good Stoppard play. The Final Fantasy movie a few years back was so meticulously animated that in a few scenes, you really couldn’t tell they weren’t real people up there. Didn’t make up for the fact that it was a depressing, confusing, and haphazard story without very good characterization. A bigger budget didn’t make Serenity better than Firefly, as enjoyable as Serenity was. Serenity was about as good as Firefly as you had the same writers, the same actors, and the same showrunners. Let’s dispense with the notion that a greater special effects budget makes for a superior film.

Beyond that, however, I don’t really know where to go. It seems to me that Hollywood has become even more obsessed with risk and return than the entire insurance industry, and somehow in there storytelling (which is the most important thing to me) has suffered. Look at the fascination with movie franchises. The writers and studios are going back to the negotiating table after Thanksgiving. I’m curious to know how people think things may turn out, and how they wish things might turn out in a more perfect world.

-posted by matthewsayre

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3 Responses to The Writer’s Strike and Restructuring

  1. Dana says:

    I have personally long been hopeful that someday our television writing might turn toward some kind of dedication to a story arc. One of the best parts of my semester abroad in Chile was watching Pampa Ilusion on TV, along with everyone else I knew, because it was so good. It has effected my TV desires ever since.

    Let me explain. Every 6 months, each of the major networks in Chile would start a new series, which played an episode every night at the same time, M-F, until the story was completed at the end of the 6-month period, at which point it was actually done. There was always a huge competition about which station’s show would be the national favorite, but the networks didn’t abandon their show if they were the losers; they knew that in 6 mos. they’d have another chance, with a brand new story. And it pretty much was all about the story, because the networks used ensemble casts whose core actors rarely changed from story to story. (I’m not sure about the directors, but I suspect they were permanent staff as well.)

    In Japan, too, they do many shows dedicated to a fixed story arc. My Japanese television watching wasn’t as dedicated, so I never figured out the exact formula, but I heard somewhere they have a lot of shows that are 13 weeks. (That would probably explain why the shows I liked always seemed to be ending.) Yes, both countries had a lot of horribly obnoxious variety shows, too, but at least there was something truly interesting on TV some of the time.

    I’m not really sure why US TV has become so dominated by episodic shows, which drag on for innumerable seasons with only the thinnest sliver of a continuous background plot to hold them together. Perhaps because even the smallest taste of a continuing story makes us want to see how it will play out next, even though that content will make up all of 5 minutes of the whole show. TV’s already addictive; imagine what it would be like if more of it were actually good. At least right now it leaves me with plenty of time to read.

    As for movies, I don’t really know what could be done better, except maybe if TV moved toward finite timelines, movie studios wouldn’t feel so compelled to flog franchises to death with horrible sequels. I can dream…

  2. Matthew Sayre says:

    That is definitely something I’d like to see in American television. Recognizing that a good story has been told, and then closing the book. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was great for the first few seasons, but then they just kept on making it despite the fact that it wasn’t really fun anymore. I also find the same problem in the film industry. Oceans 11 was a success so let’s do 12 and 13. Pirates of the Carribbean did well, so let’s make more of those. They’ve got plans all the way to Shrek 5, with a spin-off movie for Puss in Boots. It doesn’t matter that the story had been told, and not only were the sequels pointless, but actually took away from the power of the first movie, let’s just run the franchise into the ground. I remember after watching Matrix: Reloaded that I went back and saw the first movie again just to verify to myself that the Matrix was a good movie and I hadn’t just rewritten it better in my own head.

    This isn’t a solution to any of the problems I mentioned, just something that I’d kind of like to see. Television ensembles like we used to see theater ensembles might be pretty neat. The same actors and directors and writing teams working with each other, but when they finish the story, end it and start a new one. Everybody knows each other, so maybe they’ll be able to slip into a new project seamlessly without the business of getting each other’s rhythm. It’s one of the reasons Joss Whedon and other showrunners use the same people over and over again, they know how to get the best from them.

    Getting a brand new series and team started is a process which is often poisonous to new series. Babylon 5’s first season was pleasant enough, but in later seasons the deep chemistry that had developed between the characters is what really drove the plot. If it had been cancelled in the first season, we never would have seen what the series would have become, and remembered it as a fairly forgettable if diverting sci-fi series that ran for a year.

    One series that kind of worked on a variation of this premise was the A&E Nero Wolfe mystery series a few years back. Not only was there a core cast of recurring characters played by the same actors, but just about everybody else was played by the same set of rotating actors. In one week an actor might be playing the killer, in another the victim, and a third goofy comic relief. While it was the same actor, it was different characters, and the actors made it work, and it was a fun time.

    I think the episodic elements date back to old serials and radio soap operas. Come up with enough plot twists that you keep coming back and being exposed to advertisers. You have a single premise for a show, the ‘situation’, and just work that formula until people are sick of it, or until the cast decides they just can’t take it anymore. Kelsey Grammer played Frasier Crane over two sitcoms for something like twenty years! It’s the same kind of risk and reward thing that Hollywood does. The studios would rather turn out a sure thing like a 10th season of Friends which they know will be successful in generating advertising revenue, even if the stars are demanding so much money you’re barely in the black. But you’re in the black! I can’t really blame the studios for this behavior, considering the American public does make it profitable, I just wish they’d take a few more chances on good stories. It’s almost a kind of an American Entertainment Paradigm that’s different from Chile or Japan.

  3. kidsilkhaze says:

    The new media market is an issue that needs to worked out sooner, rather than later. Book publishers are also trying to work this out with their writers, realizing that the market is about to change in dramatic ways and they don’t want to be caught with their pants down.

    I think a good comprimise between the dragging on of American shows (did you know that ER is still on the air?! Crazy!) is the British model, which aren’t necessarily dedicated to a story arc, but they usually only last a few seasons.

    The other problem is the way the industry has changed. Seinfeld would never make it in today’s industry. It would have been pulled after 3 episodes, because it tok the 20-odd episodes of the first season before it started really building a solid audience. What network would give that a chance now? And yet, for better or for worse, Seinfeld changed American TV (being the first show about nothing, which I think is better than a lot of these crappy situations to base a show on) and was a very successful show.

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