Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Of Straw and Strikes

November 14, 2007, 8:30 a.m.

The Writers' Strike and Media's Future

John Barleykorn, who has assumed the daunting task of trying to keep me honest in these blog entries, has now posed a question (in a comment added to yesterday's blog entry about Barbara and Bill Richardson at the JJ Dinner) regarding the Writers Guild strike:

John Barleykorn said...

What are your thoughts on the SWG strike? I think they are taking a risk here. My fear is that you will get a lot more "reality" TV shows, and when the strike ends, less work for writers. My advice to someone young is to write and produce it yourself over the internet.

11/13/2007 07:37:00 PM
I knew Ann Landers and her daughter, but I have not chosen to follow her example with this blog -- where I provide a virtually uncensored opportunity for readers' comments, but do not assume responsibility for responding to them.

Knowing something of the challenges confronting the Los Angeles creative community, however, and with appreciation for John's efforts as a one-man truth squad, I've decided to make an exception.

His question reminds me of an experience with an Iowa farmer, and the wisdom contained in an airline magazine ad.

While running for Congress in Iowa's old Third District some 30 years ago, I was living in a farmhouse in the Kesley, Iowa, suburbs during some cold north-Iowa months. Unfortunately, the warmth of the local residents was not matched by the warmth of the largely-uninsulated house. So I decided to put some straw bales around the outside. I borrowed a pickup truck and followed the directions to the farm where I'd been told I could buy some bales. When I asked the owner what he wanted for my truck load he allowed as how 75c a bale would be just fine. I pointed out that the market price was more like $1.25, and that 75c was not fair. He resisted, but we ultimately settled on $1.00 a bale.

I love that story and would sing it to the strains of John Lennon's "Imagine" if I could write lyrics -- and sing.

But the fact is that the commercial world is better represented by that airline magazine ad you must have seen if you've ever flown. The headline reads, "You get what you negotiate." Or perhaps we should have understood that, before we even reached the West Coast, from the country song's lyrics, "All the gold in California is in a bank in Beverly Hills in somebody else's name."

Few members of Writers Guild-West, or the Screen Actors Guild -- let alone their contract negotiators -- have ever confronted a producer, or studio representative, insisting that the actors or writers really ought to be paid more, given the importance of their role in the production.

The creative community has had to fight, to strike, to go without, for everything they've ever received. They've had to learn to take a share of the gross rather than the net, because after the accountants are through with the numbers there never is any net.

With everybody taking a share of their pay, one actor in a top-rated TV series told me that she often ended up with something on the order of 10% of what the fan magazines said she was being paid -- agents, managers, business managers, publicists, lawyers, accountants and others were the ones putting their share of her "gold in California" into "a bank in Beverly Hills" in their names, not hers. I knew of two actors whose business managers left California, each with over $100,000 of theirs that neither woman ever saw again. And don't get me started about the recording industry.

So what's the strike about this time? Both the actors and writers have more than once ended up one generation behind the technology curve. That's where they find themselves once again.

Here's an analogy. Suppose you write, and are paid for, a stage play. Much to your surprise, along comes something called motion pictures, and you find your play put to film -- creating a second profit for the producer, but no fair share of that second profit for you. So next time you contract for your play you include a provision that you will be paid an additional sum if it is used in a film. So far so good, but how could you have imagined the coming of something called television? Once again, you find your creative writing producing additional revenue for somebody -- but not for you. So the next contract includes reference to television -- but, alas, says nothing about your rights to a share of the profits from videotape. You get the picture.

So today's "next big thing" is whatever the Internet ends up becoming.

Nobody knows for sure. What's already apparent, however, is that technologically -- with or without another couple orders of magnitude increase in bandwidth -- a very large proportion of the "radio" and "CDs" you'd want to listen to, the "television" you'd want to watch, is available on any WiFi-connected laptop. Networks are streaming their programming -- giving you, in effect, a free TiVo service in the bargain (the ability to listen, or watch, whenever it fits into your schedule, not theirs). They are producing three-minute "programs" to be viewed on your cell phone. The possibilities are endless.

The potential revenue is not.

The writers, understandably in this "fool me once, shame on you" scenario, want to make sure it doesn't happen to them again. They want a fair price for those bales of straw they create, now that it turns out they can be sold five times instead of just once.

The producers and studios, on the other hand -- those five firms that control all the world's media -- want to make sure they don't promise to pay out to the writers a revenue stream that never ends up materializing.

John Barleykorn says, "My advice to someone young is to write and produce it yourself over the internet." "Someone young" is already taking that advice. It's called YouTube. But at this point in time, writing and producing it yourself over the Internet is going to require that the "someone young" get a day job parking cars or waiting on tables -- as young folks in LA have been doing for years -- if they intend to pay rent and eat.

The networks no longer share 95% of the television-watching audience as they did in pre-cable days. It's more like half that. But even at half that, the networks' ratings, and the box office revenue for American films -- around the world, not just in this country -- is proof that, reality shows or not, there remains a strong market demand for the American creative product of LA's professionals.

One of my actor friends, whose Motion Picture Academy card could get us into theaters anywhere, used to insist that as a matter of respect for the industry I stay and watch the credits role at the end of the film. It's a practice I've continued to this day -- even though the credits get longer every year. This is an extraordinary industry we have, only made possible with hundreds of skills and thousands of talented people (including, of course, that of the producers). One that, in addition to boosting our spirits and making us laugh and cry, also is one of the few industries that makes a positive contribution to our balance of payments.

So I'm not concerned that, at least ultimately, there will be "less work for writers."

Whose side am I on in this strike?

Take a guess, John, and thanks for the question.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No one can keep you honest, Johnson!


just kidding