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STRUCK DUMB: WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE? Now that all sides have resigned themselves to the fact that the Hollywood writers’ strike is a permanent part of the entertainment landscape, at least for the foreseeable future, the analysis pieces have started appearing to explain just what went wrong – and what’s going to go even more wrong.
Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune, published an essay on the strike drawing from several sources on Monday, mourning the likelihood that – in her opinion, and that of several other interested onlookers – the movie and TV business are making the same mistakes that the music industry made when the digital revolution tore through their marketplace like food poisoning on a cheap cruise.
At issue is the idea of ownership – the networks and studios still believe that they are the authors and custodians of the shows on their network, and that the people who actually cook up the plots and characters – the producers, writers and showrunners – are mere employees, who should be happy to benefit according to whatever compensation formula the networks and studios deem least injurious to their bottom line. That, Ryan thinks, is about to change forever.
“Entertainment conglomerates are not the only game in town, as musicians have realized and as Hollywood writers, directors and actors are figuring out,” she writes. “The strike blogs and videos that have proliferated in the last few weeks are indications that it’s easy - and fun - to do an end run around the companies that allegedly control the entertainment industry.”
If this sounds like Ryan’s sympathies are with the writers, give yourself a gold star for reading comprehension. The moving picture business could settle their dispute with the writers for a pittance, she says – writers’ royalties from movies amounted to US $121 million last year, and according to a blog posting by L.A. entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, a compromise on digital royalties by the studios and networks would only cost about $60 million a year per studio – “To the big corporations that own the studios, that’s chump change,” says Ryan.
It doesn’t address the issue of who owns the content, though, and Ryan quotes new media pioneer Marc Andreessen (the guy who helped invent the web browser) wondering why the writers would settle for such small beans when the internet offers them the chance to do an end-run around the old media and retain ownership of their ideas. It’s a nice idea – internet types are especially fond of stuff like this, and it appeals to the creative utopian in all of us – but it ignores the deep up-front cost of getting stories from paper to screen, which are an order of magnitude greater than producing a song or even a whole album and making it available for download. The “bottleneck” model that gives studios and networks control production and distribution might be antiquated, but until a new economic model arises that allows creators access to very serious investment capital arises to spite it, the writers’ and the suits who make the talkies talk are probably trapped in an embrace that’s looking more and more like a suicide pact.