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