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The Journey

WGAE at Washington rally

WGAE at Washington rally 10-2-10

One year ago this Saturday, in the early morning hours of October 2, 2010, I stumbled out of my apartment in Washington Heights and caught the A train downtown. I was headed to Canal Street, where a contingent of intrepid, sleep-deprived WGAE members and staff was gathering at 5:45 a.m. to board buses bound for Washington, D.C. Our destination: a large, labor-sponsored rally, which was meant to be the answer to Glenn Beck’s kooky Restoring Honor Tea Party event that had been held on the Mall in late August.

Huddled together on the darkened sidewalk along 6th Avenue just north of Canal, we had no idea our rally would have its thunder stolen by a different progressive gathering, the one that Jon Stewart had announced for October 31st, which he dubbed the Rally to Restore Sanity. So many rallies, so little time. And ours, alas, just didn’t have a catchy name (One Nation Working Together – sorry but that definitely needs a rewrite).

The 5½ hour bus ride to Washington D.C. was not especially memorable. I tried to catch up on my sleep, then introduced myself to some fellow scribes. WGAE staff did an excellent job of organizing: attendance was taken, sandwiches and beverages were handed out and the Guild’s red t-shirts were distributed.

The bus dropped us off in the parking lot of RFK Stadium, where we joined tens of thousands of other union members from around the country. It was a stirring tableau…until practical matters intervened and we were forced to wait for an hour in the mother of all lines to catch the Metro to the Mall. Kudos to Guild staff for providing us all with subway passes and keeping our contingent herded together.

When we reached the Mall, we trekked to a spot along the Reflecting Pool, about a quarter mile from the speakers’ podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It had turned into a beautiful autumn day and from that picturesque location we raptly listened to a succession of gifted, inspiring, progressive speakers deliver uniformly brilliant, impassioned oratory that would have given Martin Luther King a run for his money.

If only.

The speeches I heard that October afternoon were not especially memorable. Unfortunately, President Obama didn’t make an appearance. A year later, I can’t recall a single speaker or what they talked about. The same was true the day after the rally!

After two and half hours of hanging out on the Mall, our WGAE staff minders informed us that it was time to head back to the buses for the ride home. The seven hour bus ride back to Manhattan was not especially memorable. My recollection is that we returned to our gathering spot in Lower Manhattan at about 10:30 p.m.

Superficially recalling that day a year later, I remember spending twelve and a half hours on buses and three hours on subways in order to sit on the Mall for a couple of hours listening to a succession of mediocre speakers at a now-forgotten rally that barely registered in the media. Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington it wasn’t.

I probably sound like a grumpy curmudgeon and perhaps I am. But, honestly, I had a wonderful and memorable experience that day. It was truly exciting to trek down to the nation’s capital with union brothers and sisters and make our political views known. I relished the deviation from my normal routine and the fun and adventure that this journey provided.

And two of the seeming drawbacks of the day – the long hours spent on buses and the inferior quality of the speeches – turned out to have unexpected benefits.

The bus rides provided ample opportunity to spend quality time with fellow writers. Long conversations flowed. Old friendships were renewed. New ones were forged.

And the mediocre speeches allowed me to wander away from our gathering spot to take in the sights and sounds of the rally and photograph some of the unique and unforgettable characters who were drawn to it.

Like the guy dressed as the Grim Reaper who carried a huge, hand-lettered poster that read, “Death thanks the GOP for its stance on healthcare reform. You guys sure make my job easy.” And the elegant, gray-haired, octogenarian woman who held above her head a placard bearing the words, “Feed the Poor. Eat the Rich.” And the bearded, middle-aged man whose sign proudly proclaimed “Amnesiacs Vote Republican.” These signs weren’t written under a WGAE contract, but good writing is still good writing!

In retrospect, I am especially delighted that the Guild took it upon itself to organize this field trip, providing the buses and the meals and even the Metro cards. It seemed to signal a new, more activist bent to our union and I really welcome that.

I hope there is another, similar field trip in the Guild’s future. This curmudgeon would be more than happy to rise again at 4:30 a.m. to be part of it.

Dealing With Rejection

I just counted up the number of rejections I received last week, by email and snail mail, and the total was eight. This was higher than normal, so it was definitely a banner week for my work to be passed on!

All of these rejections were for stage plays, both full-length and one-act, that I had submitted to a variety of theater companies and playwriting competitions across the country. This got me thinking about how my attitude towards, and response to, rejection has changed in the 25-plus years that I’ve been writing.

When I first started, fresh out of USC Film School, each rejection I received was extremely painful, like a dagger aimed straight at my heart. I was exclusively writing screenplays then, and every time one of my scripts was turned down by a studio or production company, it affected me profoundly. My typical response would be a deep melancholy that would last for several days. The rejection and the disappointment that accompanied it seemed to seep deeply into the marrow of my soul.

In retrospect, a lot of this had to do with the fact that I was just starting out in my writing career and every script seemed precious. And it wasn’t just the script that was being rejected, it was me. Each rejection made me question whether I was really a writer or just another wannabe, a poseur.

In response to this crippling melancholia, I eventually evolved a different strategy for dealing with rejection – anger and dismissal. I built up a wall around my self-esteem by angrily dismissing whoever had rejected my script as an idiot or moron who was clueless about good writing. William Goldman’s famous dictum from ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, “Nobody knows anything,” became my mantra. In hindsight, I don’t think it was much of an improvement to be walking around angry and bitter for a few days, as opposed to sad and depressed.

Fortunately, as the years passed and I continued to write, each piece became a little less precious, each rejection less a personal affront. I began to inure to rejection and to see it as an inevitable part of a writer’s life. Writing stage plays really helped to bring this into focus because they are more of a renewable resource. Unlike a screenplay, a play is not limited to a single production.

All eight of the rejections I received last week were for plays that had previously been selected for production or for staged readings elsewhere. In other words, they had been winners of other competitions. One short play, ANYTHING ELSE?, had been one of six plays selected for production from 650 submissions in the 2010 Festival of One-Act Plays at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, New York. I hadn’t change a word of the play, yet it was turned down without comment last week by two other festivals. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious – it’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. Every reader brings a different taste to the task of script evaluation. This particular lesson was brought home to me in dramatic fashion last year after I submitted another short play, a dark comedy entitled THE SURPRISE PARTY, to the Dubuque Fine Arts Players (DFAP) in Iowa for consideration in their National Playwriting Contest.

The play was not selected, but as part of the process the DFAP sent me the actual critique sheets of the two readers who evaluated my work. (These sheets are akin to the coverage that screenplays receive). Each reader evaluated my play on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best) in 10 different categories, so the maximum possible score was 100.

The first reader gave my play a perfectly respectable overall tally of 70. But the second scored it with an execrable total of 12.5! That’s right – a total score of 12.5 out of 100, or an average of 1.25 out of 10 in each category. Reader Number 2 (I will refrain from calling him or her an idiot or a moron) obviously hated the play. Perhaps dark comedy doesn’t play as well in some quarters of Dubuque, Iowa as it does in New York City – THE SURPRISE PARTY was later selected from several hundred submissions and produced at the 2010 International Cringefest here in Manhattan. How to account for this? It’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. (This is my new mantra.)

I would be lying if I said that rejection had no effect on me these days. There is still genuine disappointment associated with it, but that seems normal to me. And it is usually brief, a matter of minutes rather than days. It is no longer crippling; it’s just a part of the process.

The gifted playwright and screenwriter John Guare gave this clearheaded assessment in a November 14, 2010 article in The New York Times:

“What a long career does give you, during the long nights of thinking and rewriting, is a healthy perspective: As writers, we’re always starting all over again,” Mr. Guare said. “That’s what I tell younger playwrights, that you have to learn how to live with despair, resentment, rejection and failure. Because if you can’t, you need to find another line of work.”

Sobering words, indeed, but somehow strangely inspiring. I have them framed above my writing desk.

__________________
Jeff Stolzer is a screenwriter, playwright and former question writer for Regis Philbin on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. He is a proud member of the Writers Guild since 1991.

Why I March on Labor Day

I march on Labor Day because workers are under assault in our country. Corporations have been using their increasing power to try to bust unions and deprive workers of their basic rights to a living wage and health care benefits. Similarly, numerous state governments have recently cast their unionized workers as the scapegoats for their budget problems and have outrageously attempted to curtail collective bargaining rights. We need to speak out and fight back against these assaults.

I march on Labor Day because the gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically in the past few decades. We have witnessed wage stagnation for the working and middle classes while CEO salaries have reached astronomical, obscene levels. We are still the wealthiest nation on the planet and there is absolutely no reason why the share of the pie that goes to workers should be diminished. We need to make our outrage known.

I march on Labor Day because I know from past experience that it’s great fun. It’s joyful and empowering to take to the streets with fellow writers and union members and exercise our rights to free speech and assembly. These rights are only valuable when they are actually used – if we neglect to exercise them, we risk losing them. When we march, we become part of a noble tradition of expressing ourselves with our feet and our lungs that ties us historically to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa and the leaders of this year’s Arab Spring. How cool is that?

Finally, I march on Labor Day because I spend too much time in my writing cave, parked at the keyboard, staring at the computer screen. My skin is too pale, my muscles risk atrophy. I need the sun and the exercise.

Click here to RSVP
Saturday, Sept 10th
44th and 5th Avenue
9:15am
Look for the red WGAE banner

__________________
Jeff Stolzer is a screenwriter, playwright and former question writer for Regis Philbin on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. He is a proud member of the Writers Guild since 1991.

Are Kickstarter and IndieGogo ruining webseries?

I can feel all independent webseries creators slowly notching their arrows in my direction. How could Kickstarter/IndieGogo possibly be bad for webseries? It’s often the only way webseries can get funded!

Well, yes. That’s true. Often it is. And I have nothing against either operation. I use them both and have supported friends stageplays, records, films and webseries. In fact, I have sat on a panel with Kickstarter’s kickstarter, Yancey Strickland, and found him a great guy with a lot of great motivations and a really fantastic success story. He and his colleagues are doing wonderful, altruistic work for many, many people. Much better work than me, in fact, so I should probably just shut my damn mouth, right?

But what I’m most interested in is quality of web video. Let’s try that filter out.

It used to be (in the aulden dayes of 2008 and before!) that if you wanted to make a webseries, you either had to find some sponsor willing to pay for it (in which case, most of the time, it turned out crappy), or you did it yourself on credit cards (in which case, most of the time, it turned out cheap). Today, everyone can get their shit together, put together a pitch, and send it out to 100+ friends.

Everyone can do this. That is the benefit, and that is the problem.

ISSUE 1: Kickstarter pretty much funds everything. Because it’s social. If you are reasonably popular, you sell your pitch reasonably well, and your friends are not all reasonably homeless, you can count on milking 10 or 25 bucks from them each to do pretty much whatever you want. Extend that to your colleagues, your Facebook friends, the people on Twitter, and probably a couple of older and wealthier relatives, and you can pretty easily get your $5,000.
But just because your friends are willing to support you doesn’t make it good. (In fact, experience has taught me that sometimes folks are willing to fund projects just to get their creators to shut up about it already). The money is now available – for everybody. Which means people who were too timid to spend money, too afraid of taking a risk, or too unsure of the quality of their ideas are now jumping in. Because what’s to lose? It’s not my money, and it’s not real money. Right?

I don’t mean to be aggressive or Randian on anybody here. But I do think that if you have a good idea, you know you have a good idea, and you do whatever it takes to make it. If it crashes and burns along the way, congratulations: you’ve failed, the most important step in success. If it doesn’t crash and burn, then congratulations: you’ve just taken one massive, exciting step towards your next failure.

With crowd-sourced funding of yet-to-be-produced projects, there is little natural weeding of poor ideas. It used to be a little easier to separate the wheat from the chaff, webseries-wise, in that there was just so little of either. Now there’s a lot of both. The meritocrats believe that good content will naturally rise to the top. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that a glut of chaff will continue to hide most of it, and we keep shoveling in that chaff.

(At least until we have better filtering, which will be the subject of several future entries).

ISSUE 2: These sites are unwittingly setting the standard rate of production for webseries. It seems to be, most people are asking for $5K to $10K for a 6-to-10-episode season. With most webisodes clocking in at 3 minutes these days, let’s do some terrible math and estimate that we are producing our webseries for a rate of about $300-$500 per produced minute.

Now, I’m all for low-budget video. I haven’t really done anything but. My highest budget for an actual webseries (excluding commercial projects) was a half million; yet, that was for about five and a half hours of broadcast-quality content (roughly 3 feature films). I love low-budget, and nothing makes me more angry than “directors” who think they can’t shoot a single frame without a crane, gib arm and pyrotechnics.

Except for being undervalued. That makes me madder. And I’m starting to get afraid here. Because we were producing The Burg for $100 a produced minute, and no one got paid. We shot 60 pages in 3 days for All’s Faire. But that’s supposed to not be the case anymore, in 2011. This is supposed to be becoming an industry. Kickstarter/Indiegogo is setting a potentially dangerous precedent here: 1, you have to have money, but 2, it should only be a little money. If this is defining what webseries are and which ones get made, then should we be concerned about the motivation for more professionals to really get into the business (and thus, real audiences)?

Now before anyone accuses me of being mean, elitist, needlessly antagonistic, or just a douche, I want to make it clear: I am indeed doing the online equivalent of throwing a bunch of darts into the air at the holiday party, and hoping they don’t hit me. Everybody loves Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and they’re making a lot of great stuff happen. I’m just asking questions.

Nor do I have alternatives to suggest. Although I do have interest in a different kind of crowd-sourced model: the audience-supported one. By which I mean, the actual audience that you know you actually have, because you made the first season on your own and built it up. Anyone But Me is the constantly cited example of this, but they’re not the only ones. Reason I like this is it combines the feel-good-social-video model (which we all love to embrace in theory) with the hardcore-objectivist-meritocracy model (that’s what actual business runs on). I, personally, think that’s a more viable longterm trend for web video.

Disagreements? Darts? Throw ‘em my way.

Size Really Does Matter

The numbers for online video consumption in the U.S. came out from comScore (basically, the internet-video version of Nielsen, but site-specific). I found out about it through Marc Hustvedt’s great online video resource, tubefilter.tv.

Two key takeaways:
– 6.3 BILLION viewing sessions. Everybody is watching internet video, and watching more and more of it.
– The average video duration is 5.4 minutes. It’s been climbing steadily from December 2007.

Think about that second stat for a second. If you’re coming from TV land, 5.4 minutes doesn’t sound like much screentime. But if you’re coming from web video land, this is huge.

When my partners and I started The Burg way back in 2006, comScore wasn’t even around, but online ‘common sense’ was. This common sense told us, nay, SCREAMED at us, that a minute and a half was an ideal video length, and anything longer than 3 minutes was suicide. This frightened us, as a typical episode of The Burg was anywhere from 14 to 22 minutes long. So, we played it safe. We began to create shorts of anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (yes, even our shorts were longer than most people’s ‘longs’.) We interspersed our normal eps with our shorts. We fully anticipated looking at our viewcount and having much less views for our longer eps.

The exact opposite happened. Our views actually went down every time we posted a short. Why? We don’t know exactly. But after talking to fans, we have a pretty good idea: they were outside the chronology of the story. They were little jokes, standalone scenes, things that didn’t fit in the tightly plotted and structured episodes of The Burg. And so, people didn’t care as much. I knew right then that we had something good. People were hooked on the structure and the story and didn’t mind the length.

Ever since then, I’ve rigidly maintained that length should not be the top deciding factor when you’re creating your content. I’ve been mocked for this, as there are many creators who believe otherwise. In the early days, there were a lot of 90-second episodic thrillers. For me, even when well produced, the story jolted and jittered, because 90 seconds of a thriller is enough to get you to a cliffhanger, but usually seems to stop short of great character development. When working with other online portals, I’ve had to cut 5 minute shorts to under 3 minutes, and in the process, lost some of the best moments because they just didn’t fit. (This is not to say you can’t make a great episode in 90 seconds – of course you can. I just think you shouldn’t have to.)

I get why this happens in TV. You have a fixed inventory of time. 22 minutes for your sitcom once commercials are factored in. It becomes a surgical process (and to a degree, it should with all content). But on the internet, there is no such restriction. Yet content creators and programmers decided to all limit themselves to one anyway. It seems cynical, arbitrary, and a big underestimation of viewers’ tastes.

Well, it seems that common sense was wrong in this case. People are now, officially, measurably, watching longer and longer video. And 5.4 minutes is the average. Meaning, many people are consuming video that’s much, much longer.

As Hustvedt states, “If the same trajectory were to be taken forward a few years, which is probably a conservative estimate given the current market, we’d expect to see average online video duration at 10.4 minutes by 2014.”

Which means, by my shoddy estimate, people are going to be ready for The Burg by… let’s see… May 2017. Hm. Oh well. Better 11 years early than too late.

Size Really Does Matter

Two weeks ago the numbers for online video consumption in the U.S. came out from comScore (basically, the internet-video version of Nielsen, but site-specific). I found out about it through Marc Hustvedt’s great online video resource, tubefilter.tv.

Two key takeaways:
– 6.3 BILLION viewing sessions. Everybody is watching internet video, and watching more and more of it.
– The average video duration is 5.4 minutes. It’s been climbing steadily from December 2007.

Think about that second stat for a second. If you’re coming from TV land, 5.4 minutes doesn’t sound like much screentime. But if you’re coming from web video land, this is huge.

When my partners and I started The Burg way back in 2006, comScore wasn’t even around, but online ‘common sense’ was. This common sense told us, nay, SCREAMED at us, that a minute and a half was an ideal video length, and anything longer than 3 minutes was suicide. This frightened us, as a typical episode of The Burg was anywhere from 14 to 22 minutes long. So, we played it safe. We began to create shorts of anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (yes, even our shorts were longer than most people’s ‘longs’.) We interspersed our normal eps with our shorts. We fully anticipated looking at our viewcount and having much less views for our longer eps.

The exact opposite happened. Our views actually went down every time we posted a short. Why? We don’t know exactly. But after talking to fans, we have a pretty good idea: they were outside the chronology of the story. They were little jokes, standalone scenes, things that didn’t fit in the tightly plotted and structured episodes of The Burg. And so, people didn’t care as much. I knew right then that we had something good. People were hooked on the structure and the story and didn’t mind the length.

Ever since then, I’ve rigidly maintained that length should not be the top deciding factor when you’re creating your content. I’ve been mocked for this, as there are many creators who believe otherwise. In the early days, there were a lot of 90-second episodic thrillers. For me, even when well produced, the story jolted and jittered, because 90 seconds of a thriller is enough to get you to a cliffhanger, but usually seems to stop short of great character development. When working with other online portals, I’ve had to cut 5 minute shorts to under 3 minutes, and in the process, lost some of the best moments because they just didn’t fit. (This is not to say you can’t make a great episode in 90 seconds – of course you can. I just think you shouldn’t have to.)

I get why this happens in TV. You have a fixed inventory of time. 22 minutes for your sitcom once commercials are factored in. It becomes a surgical process (and to a degree, it should with all content). But on the internet, there is no such restriction. Yet content creators and programmers decided to all limit themselves to one anyway. It seems cynical, arbitrary, and a big underestimation of viewers’ tastes.

Well, it seems that common sense was wrong in this case. People are now, officially, measurably, watching longer and longer video. And 5.4 minutes is the average. Meaning, many people are consuming video that’s much, much longer.

As Hustvedt states, “If the same trajectory were to be taken forward a few years, which is probably a conservative estimate given the current market, we’d expect to see average online video duration at 10.4 minutes by 2014.”

Which means, by my shoddy estimate, people are going to be ready for The Burg by… let’s see… May 2017. Hm. Oh well. Better 11 years early than too late.

Washington Considers New Worker Protection Rule and over 15,000 Weigh in To Support it

Good news from Washington—the federal agency charged with enforcing labor law—the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] – has proposed modifying its rules to close the loopholes that employers use to delay and discourage employees seeking union representation. American Rights at Work explains that “by cutting back on needless bureaucracy and discouraging costly, frivolous litigation, the proposed rule modernizes the union election process. In so doing, the rule would improve stability and reduce conflict in the workplace.” If the rules are made final, this will be the most significant positive change at the NLRB in decades.

60 signatures per page, 250 pages - photo by David Sachs care of UnionReview.com

That’s why the Guild quickly mobilized our members to sign on to a group petition in support of the rules change. Our friends at the Service Employees International Union coordinated a mass petition drop-off, hand delivering our signatures along with those it collected. SEIU’s Richard Negri blogged: “When I told NLRB Executive Secretary Lester A. Heltzer that he was holding a letter signed by more than 15,000 workers and worker activists who support the proposed rule change, he was impressed, saying the action was ‘definitely a first.’”

Many of the Guild members who signed our petition wrote comments explaining why this issue is so important to them. WGAE member Brad Desch wrote “at a time when working people are having such a hard time making ends meets and living decently, this protection is more important than ever.” Council Member Ted Schreiber explained “the freedom to organize IS freedom of speech.” Hillary Martin wrote “I never got rich working as a Union member. But I saw my non-union colleagues working 7-day weeks and in constant fear of losing their jobs.”

The petition delivery coincided with two days of hearings on the rule change in which labor groups, employees struggling to join unions, respected academics and economists faced off against high priced union-busting law firms who make a living by blocking people from joining unions. The AFL-CIO’s live coverage of the hearings is still online.

Labor attorney Hope Singer testified in support of the modifications, explaining how the current delays hurt creative professionals in the entertainment industry:

“Under the present system, any employer who wishes to ensure that there will be no union representation can have that wish met, and the movie will be completed, released worldwide with advanced DVD purchases on Amazon and eventually at your local convenience store before an election [to join a union] can be held.”

Speaking of which, executives at the nonfiction TV production company ITV Studios are still delaying the ratification of their employees’ vote to join the Guild. It has been 7 months and counting. WGAE member Janice Legnitto included a pertinent message to the NLRB along with her petition signature. She wrote;

“For the past two decades, the cable television industry has destroyed writers’ ability to earn salaries that are commensurate with other TV professionals such as camera men and women and editors. The result has been devastating for writers’ economic survival. This has happened while the industry has reaped record profits year after year.

The only way that writers can win the right to earn a fair wage and share profits with cable TV owners is to make it possible for them to have the right to vote in free and fair elections in every cable television shop in America.”

We will keep you posted on ways to support writers and producers in nonfiction TV. Send an email to elevin@wgaeast.org if you’d like to be on our email list.

ADDENDUM: the AFL just posted a blog post explaining what the rules changes would do and wouldn’t do.

Soaps? Online? Hell yes!

Shortly after my show All’s Faire came out, I was approached by a gentleman who asked Dinosaur Diorama and I to make The Guidling Light as a webseries. To be clear, he was only a fan of the show, not a producer of any sort. He had seen our show, which starred both Robert Bogue and Mandy Bruno of that show, and likely knew about our casting of other soap stars (Kelli Giddish back when she was on All My Children, Tom Pelphrey) in the past.

I thought long and hard about this. Not because I particularly like soap operas or have any creative interest in The Guiding Light. But I was fascinated by the idea of turning an existing soap property into an online property. I went out and bought Dark Shadows and watched it to see. Could something like this be turned into a webshow? Creatively? Legally?

After doing the math, I couldn’t make it work. The most I would be able to produce might be a short scene per day. Ultimately, I realized that the people who watch soaps wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They watched soaps because they were hooked on the stories, but also to occupy time when they were at home or at work. Soap watchers are a mix of very active fans (buying magazines, talking on forums, following the actors) and very passive fans (turning it on and watching it with half your mind while you do something else).

That said, I loved the idea of the online soap. I loved the idea of event television online. I loved bringing a show to an under-served online audience. I loved the the discipline involved in crafting a daily storyline (even if it does sometimes revolve around amnesia and/or demonic possession). I loved the absolutely seamless and meaningful integration of products into a storyline (they’re not called SOAP operas for nothing, folks). I thought long and hard about getting involved.

But I didn’t. Time went on and other projects swiftly took its place. And then today, I saw this:

Beloved Soaps to migrate online. All My Children and One Life To Live being bought by production company Prospect Park (they make “Royal Pains” among other things).”

And I’m fascinated. This is a proven company. Buying a proven (if a bit faded and temporarily suffering) property. And aiming to produce for a thoroughly unproven medium. This is big. Very big.

Now that people all over the country have high-speed broadband, and people of all ages are much more used to watching video online, how will these soaps do? But the bigger question to me is, what will they look like? Will they be an hour long? Will they be a scene long? Will they be union shows (it looks like yes, the same cast and crew at least will be involved)? Will they be daily? Will they in any way resemble the shows that so many people knew and loved?

Further, they are “expected to be the first of a number of brand-name TV shows” to be programmed on a “new, as-yet-unnamed, TV-focused network”. Big. Very very big!

As some of you know, I have something sort of similar (but also completely different) in the works. But if Rich Frank and Jeff Kwatinetz can take this first massive step and make it work – and I have every reason to believe they can – then I want to be the first to welcome them to the sandbox.

Or should I say soapbox (and buh-dum-CHING and cut to commercial).

P.S. Kudos to Roger Newcomb over at We Love Soaps. This must be a big day for him

The Long Tail Theory: Why Webseries Creators Need Net Neutrality

The following remarks were delivered by Thom Woodley at the WGAE’s Capital Hill briefing on Internet policy.
* * *

Thom Woodley speaks in Senate Judiciary room

Thom Woodley at WGAE Hill briefing in the Senate Judiciary Committee room

Thank you, it’s an honor to be here.
I am a writer, and a creator of content, and as such, by necessity, an entrepreneur. What I’m going to talk about today are the business models of web video, how the open web allows creators to do innovative work, and the dangers that paid prioritization creates for that innovation.

In our discussions of net neutrality today, we’ve a couple of times heard the comparison of the internet to highways. I’d like to expand that. Let’s suppose that a state decides adopt the prioritization model to their roadwork. This would mean they don’t pave roads in a certain area as well as other ones. We all know what would happen. The economy in that area suffers. Trucks can’t get to it, no one wants to drive along the bumpy, dirty road.

It’s the same online. Pavement equals streaming speed. If the streaming speed is slow, no one will watch. We don’t force the people who live on that road, the businesses on that road, to pay directly for paving the whole thing. But Internet Service Providers want to do that exact thing to content providers. If we don’t have net neutrality, ISPs could charge content providers money to deliver their content at a reasonable enough speed.

I am going to make the case that that is tantamount to killing a new industry before it has developed.
There is a business model of independent web video. There are a few. They exist, but they’re still nascent. And it’s very different from television or most other traditional economic structures.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Long Tail Theory of economics. I’ll just give a quick abstract. Say we’re in a book store. 80% of people who come into that store will tend to buy the same top 20% of books. The remaining 20% of people may also buy that top tier, but in addition, seek out products that are more diverse, less common denominator. When we chart these spending habits, rank of products sold against volume of sales, we get a short ‘body’ and a long ‘tail’.

Now, in a store, there’s a physical inventory. So it only makes sense to keep that top 20% in stock. Of course, for an online store, inventory is more vast. So you can open up the full 100% of products, and get that extra business. And here’s a hidden secret: people in this long tail will tend to pay more for the products they love, if they are perceived as rare.

How does this relate to television? TV has a fixed inventory of time that it is selling. As well as a great expense in broadcasting it. So it only makes sense to program shows that 80% of the populace will seek out. The same with movie theaters – a fixed number of screens. But web video has no fixed period of time. It has no fixed numbers of screens. Strictly speaking, it has no distributional limits, except for streaming speed.

That means that online, this long tail of specialized content is now open for everybody.

From an advertising perspective, we know that a message moves farther and more effectively when it is highly tailored to its audience. You are three times more likely to watch a video if a friend shared it to you. So advertisers have an excellent model here. Let’s take as an example, an award-winning and very popular series I participate in called The Temp Life. It is sponsored by a staffing agency who could never afford to buy TV time. But they could afford a more specified and tailored web production with Hollywood celebrities like Milo Ventimiglia and Illeana Douglas. And the show just finished its 5th season, which is longer than most real Hollywood shows.

Web video, due to its long tail nature, has the tendency to gather audiences of more specific demographics. These shows function with a smaller audience, but they become more valuable to the sponsor. My show The Burg gathered an audience of hipsters and influencers mostly based in New York. It’s the kind of audience TV shows desperately try to attract, but had not reliably done so. Sure, the show did not rack up the millions of views per episode that a TV show needs. That’s okay. We did not need it. We had a highly activated audience who, when we did do sponsorships, were much more accepting of our sponsors’ products.

Web TV will not be, in the future, about gathering the ‘most views’, but gathering the ‘best views’.
But it’s worth pointing out that putting any of this content behind a paywall, or tiered download situation where it didn’t stream quickly, that would have killed it. People would not have watched.
There are two more models I’d like to briefly discuss.

One is the audience-supported show. Take the show Anyone But Me. It’s a multiple award-winning show about a lesbian teenager and her struggles. It’s excellent. It tells a difficult story about a topic some would think is controversial. And it likely would never have been made on TV. They are able to make this show because they have an audience who is demanding it. Again, it’s a smaller audience, but they are so passionate about this show that they pay for it. Not per download – by donation.
But it’s tight. Profit margins are slim in both of these models. If we were charging Anyone But Me an extra fee to stream fast enough so that the audience can watch it, then they probably would not be able to make it.

Another model that is developing is even more interesting to me, as a small business owner: the local webseries scene.
Distribution is, at present, open to everyone. I can make a video and put it up – there are no walls between me and a prospective audience of millions. At the same time, the means of film production are accessible to everyone, with consumer-level editing software and digital cameras. This means that a webseries can be generated and created anywhere, for any audience. This is of course different from film and TV, where you have to be in LA or NY.

What we are seeing now is communities of content creators and webseries makers beginning to pop up in every state of the union. In places that never had any sort of film industry before, we suddenly see one popping up. And it can be sponsored by local advertisers. I point to one of the shows I’m involved in, Greg and Donny, which is about two guys just chatting about stuff going on in the small, post-industrial steel town Johnstown, PA. Now, that sounds like a very specific show that no one outside that town would want to watch, right? Well… stay tuned.

I believe in a few years, we will be seeing small town film scenes. Communities of webseries creators and vloggers from Maine to Utah. Decentralized micro-industries of creative professionals from Alabama to Wyoming. I believe we will see this… down the road.

But not if the road is too expensive to travel on.
Net neutrality is vital to keeping the lanes of communication open. The creative economy of the future depends on it. Thank you.
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Writer and web video pioneer Thom Woodley created one of the first narrative web series “The Burg“, the Streamy and Webby nominated shows “The All-For-Nots“, “All’s Faire” and “Greg & Donny“, and is the founder of DIORAMA, a new web video channel aimed at programming television-quality independent content.

Location, Location, Location

My kids breaking story around the Southland writer’s table

My kids breaking story around the Southland writer’s table

For the 5 years I was on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, whose stages and offices were at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, my biggest complaint re location was that it was 4 long blocks to the nearest train. The Piers are as far west as you can go without needing a kayak and the closest street was the West Side Highway. After a long day at work, we’d have to walk two or more avenues before it was even worth sticking up our hands for a cab. And even farther to the A train. It seemed like such an inconvenience. Little could I have guessed that for my next job my commute home would be via the redeye from Burbank on JetBlue.

After my year off, I told my agent I wanted to staff again. With 3 kids, a stay-at-home husband and a mortgage, my personal hiatus turned out to be quite expensive. The job market in NYC for primetime dramas is intensely small. There were only one or two shows that had their writing staffs in New York, even though they were filmed here. This is the dirty little secret about shows set in New York. Most of them are written in Los Angeles. Current shows like “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order: SVU” (until recently), “CSI: NY,” “Gossip Girls,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar,” “Castle,” etc may film on our local streets and avenues, but their writers are holed up in sunny offices on the Fox, Universal, Warner Bros or Paramount studio lots in and around L.A. “Mad Men” – so iconic in its portrayal of glamorous 1960-70s New York, is not only written but filmed on stages located in hardscrabble downtown L.A.

So, it became clear that I was going to have to take a job in that sunny city. Having lived in L.A. for that almost year I was on “The West Wing,” I knew it would always be a fun place to visit, but not where I wanted to raise my family. My reasons are completely personal to me and no offense to anyone who finds it a wonderful place to live. I just can’t deal with the idea of having two cars and driving everywhere. A cab ride home is a luxurious option on a lazy day, but no matter where I am in NYC I can always take the train. But when I was offered a job on the new NBC series “Southland” about the Los Angeles Police Department, I have to admit, I was thrilled. It was innovative, gritty, brash and totally compelling. I wanted in.

“Southland” had had a highly-acclaimed 6-episode first season and had been renewed for a second season with a “let’s give it a shot” 13-episode order and an option for the back 9. I watched the first season on my laptop in The Writer’s Room in Greenwich Village and was blown away. I then walked 3 blocks to meet “Southland” creator Ann Biderman at the Dean and Deluca on University Place. Ann is a longtime New Yorker despite spending lots of time in L.A., especially to research “Southland.” We had a great chat, interrupted a few times by Ann’s friends and neighbors saying hi, confirming plans to spend the weekend in the Hamptons. Two weeks later, I was sitting across from Ann in a conference room in John Wells’ office on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Next to me were Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess, the husband-wife writing team, whose Village apartment was just blocks from Ann’s, and next to them sat Nathan Louis Jackson, fellow playwright and my Brooklyn neighbor. The irony! Here we were eating Poquito Mas takeout in the Valley on a staff that consisted largely of New Yorkers! (There were 2 other writers who were Angelenos). And you know I fantasized about how fabulous it would be if we were actually in some dank and dingy office in Chelsea or even Greenpoint, Brooklyn instead of the swanky environs we had in Burbank. But we were there for a variety of good reasons which ranged from access to the cops whose lives we were chronicling — to L.A. is where the studio and network wanted us. Funnily enough, we rarely went to set because with such a small staff we just didn’t have the time to produce our episodes. We were always either breaking story, writing an outline or writing one of many drafts of our episode (neither Ann nor John took showrunner passes. I would put a heart emoticon here if I were the emoticon type.)

Kids discovering the best kept secret of any t.v. show – the writer’s pantry

Discovering the best kept secret of any t.v. show – the writer’s pantry

My family came and spent July and August with me in a furnished sublet in Larchmont, but come September when it was back-to-school time, they went back to Brooklyn without me. I would fly home on the redeye Friday nights and fly back to Burbank on the first flight out Monday morning. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s what we did. That is, until I got a phone call from Ann one Thursday afternoon while I sat in my friend’s backyard writing the second draft of my second episode. I thought she was checking on me, making sure I was on track to turn it in on time. And the truth is, I was behind. Would have to pull an all-nighter to get it done. But Ann had something completely unexpected to say.