Posts Tagged ‘WGAE’
Hollywood is awash in blockbusters, huge-budget movies that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars from box offices around the globe. Film production in New York is at record levels, and studios will be rolling out dozens of big sequels, sci-fi adventures, comedies and star vehicles this year. But screenwriters are finding it more difficult than ever to make a living in this business. How could this be?
The major studios are owned by multinational conglomerates that seem stuck in an Old Economy way of thinking: minimize risk and maximize promotion; play it safe with product development and hope the market keeps absorbing what you’re selling. This approach didn’t work so well in the automobile industry, which learned the hard way that innovation and product quality are keys to long-term success. But the movie business keeps consolidating to the perceive security of conformism.
Don’t get me wrong. Audiences tend to be pretty smart, and many recent hits have been intelligent, well-constructed explorations of important cultural and political themes. Or at least they’ve been powerfully entertaining. But it is almost inevitable that the focus on mega-movies squeezes out films that are more intimate, independent, intriguing and innovative.
Many members of the Writers Guild of America, East, do very well in this context. Their genius for crafting stories that move and cohere, for developing characters with depth and appeal, is the foundation upon which big studio productions are built – and producers know it. Unfortunately, other Guild members find it increasingly difficult to work in the current environment. Studios are not spending nearly as much in development, so writers who do not present a sure, bankable thing have fewer opportunities to expand their ideas into complete projects. Financing for independent films has nearly disappeared, and the major studios’ emphasis on reliable box-office returns means that fewer and fewer small, more thoughtful films get from screenplay into production. Thus, opportunities for screenwriters are shrinking.
There was a time when Hollywood put writers on staff, paying them to develop ideas and to craft screenplays in order to feed a growing production machine. Now, virtually every film-writing job is freelance – that is, the screenwriter must pitch an idea to a studio or a producer; or must convince the producer that he or she would bring the just the right vision or chops to a project the studio has already decided to pursue; or must sell himself or herself as the perfect choice to rewrite or tighten up an already-drafted screenplay. And, of course, the screenwriter does not want to seem too demanding or uncooperative because that might make it harder to get hired on future projects. In other words, at each phase of the movie-making process, screenwriters increasingly devote themselves to self-marketing. This creates pressure on writers to offer more work for less pay—or even for no pay at all.
Perhaps classical economic theory would suggest this is a fine thing. And at some level of abstraction it is true that, when the supply of a particular service exceeds the demand, the price will drop. But that is more of an ideological construct than a description of the real world. If we want people to write compelling films that educate and entertain us, they need to be able to earn a decent living doing so; a race to the bottom, economically, would undermine the quality of what we watch. In any event, our research indicates that most of our members who are employed are paid significantly above the minimum rates negotiated by the union, and working members report that their “quotes” have been steady or have increased in recent years. It seems that getting a gig is more difficult than ever, and once you get the gig you have to work harder, but the pay has remained good. So much for classical economics.
People become screenwriters because it is their passion to create compelling films; to do that, they have to get hired (this includes people who bring complete ideas or scripts to the studio). And once they get hired, they want their vision to be realized on-screen – in other words, they want the movie to be made. This makes it very difficult to resist the pressure to write more for less compensation. In my view, as the WGAE grapples with the new realities of the film industry, we need to think about how to address this underlying dynamic. How do we protect members from the pressure to work for free in order to get hired to work for pay, and in order to get their movies made?
It is against Writers Guild rules to write without getting paid – no free writing to get hired, no free rewriting. But I am not sure a successful strategy can be based solely on requiring individual members to risk that they will not get hired, or will not have their work produced. In 2012, we hope to generate a robust conversation among screenwriters to develop better strategies. Our project is to identify other methods of ensuring that people who have devoted themselves to the craft of film-writing can be rewarded for their work and can earn a decent living. Perhaps there is a way to insist that the studios increase development funding, or make resources available for smaller films, or provide steadier employment for more writers. We shall see what some creative thinking can produce.
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
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.
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.