October 2006 Archives
Two weeks ago, I terminated the services of my manager. Since I had been without an agent for a number of years, it was time to go out and get one…and I hit the shark-infested waters like a nice bucket of bloody chum.
This essay isn’t about whom I’m choosing or why. It’s about the gap between writers and businessmen in the way they perceive our business, its future, and what ought to be done about it.
Over the course of the last week, I met with fairly high-level agents and occasionally the highest-level agents at CAA, ICM, UTA, William Morris and Endeavor.
While each agency has its own personality and each group of agents is unique, the perspective that the agencies have about the future of the business is fairly uniform. It’s also shockingly different than the perspective of the average writer about the same topic…and it’s miles apart from current WGAw leadership’s point of view.
I’ll attempt to articulate the two viewpoints, and in doing so, I suspect you’ll begin to see just how far apart the two groups are.
The WGAw leadership views the business through the traditional lens of management and labor, i.e. management exploits labor, thus labor must form a collective to demand fair treatment from management. Furthermore, since there are only five or so conglomerates that form management but thousands of individual writers that form the bargaining collective, numbers are key. Current union leadership believes that if striking is the ultimate gun to management’s head, jurisdiction is the caliber of the bullet.
The WGAw theory is that the more writers they represent, the more powerful they are.
In terms of the future of the business, the union’s viewpoint is that no matter what the future brings, be it digital delivery or an all-reality TV world or developments yet unforeseen, labor must continue to be fairly compensated through minimums, pension and health care and residuals. If not, then it’s war! We will strike and cripple the industry! And above all, massing numbers and creating labor unity is essential because the studios have become global conglomerates.
They’ve increased their power, thinks the Patric Verrone acolyte, therefore we must increase our numbers.
While it’s hard to characterize the perspective of the rank and file of the WGAw, I think I’d be fairly safe in saying that it’s pretty close to this: writers want more job opportunities, want to be paid better for those job opportunities, want to be treated better by their employers and want to participate more in the exploitation of the properties to which they contribute authorship.
Got it? Okay, good. That’s one side of the chasm. Let’s walk across the bridge to the—
Wait. Can’t build a bridge that long.
Not enough gas.
Let’s get into a 747 and head on over to the other side, shall we?
First off, remember that I’m talking about businessmen who advocate for writers, directors, actors and filmmakers. If the other side were the companies, then their perspective would be an obvious set of antipodes to the writers’ views. We ought to be paid less and get no residuals, because that’s what their shareholders tell them to think.
The advocates are far different. In fact, the advocate businessmen seem more pro-writer than most writers or their union.
Well…scratch that. More pro-good-writer.
They don’t view anything through the prism of labor vs. management, a dichotomy that’s always been questionable in an industry like ours. Instead, they look at the business as swirling circles of financial interest.
And they see changes.
They see studios drastically cutting development budgets and even more drastically reducing output of self-generated films (for instance, Disney and its affiliates put out more than a movie a week in the early 90’s, but they’re now planning to make maybe eight total for 2008). They see massive layoffs of creative executives who used to be charged with sheparding film development. They see fewer and fewer “open” writing assignments, and more and more films being birthed by creative nuclei (writers and directors and producers and actors).
Most interestly, they look at the globalization and corporatization of the studios as an opportunity for artists, because to a one, the corporations that comprise Big Hollywood are more risk-averse today than ever before in their entire history.
The businessmen advocates don’t really care about strikes. To them (and probably to the companies), strikes are short blips on a long-term radar. The WGAw and many writers are looking at Hollywood as employers they have to fight, and the businessmen advocates are looking at Hollywood as a business in trouble that they can exploit.
Since the first schmuck with an Underwood typed “Fade In”, writers have believed that they contributed the thing of most value. By value, some might argue creative value, but I’ll demur on that for the sake of this argument, and stipulate instead that writers contribute the thing of greatest economic potential.
Sorry. I did it again. Good writers contribute the thing of greatest economic potential. Put a good writer together with a good director, and you have the two people who contribute the lion’s share of what constitutes economic potential. Throw an actor on there, and you’ve got 99% of the economic potential.
Take that fact, add two cups of studio fear and mix in a quart of modern economic realities…and you get the thing artists in Hollywood have been clamoring for since The Great Train Robbery.
More to come….
Go on, ask…I’ve got a pretty good queue of Q&A’s lined up, and I’m going to get to each and every one of them. In the meantime, however, something pretty cool just started up in the Artful Forum that you really ought to check out.
In addition to listening to me blather each week about my point of view, I’ve roped some pro friends of mine into making themselves available to answer questions. It’s called “Ask A Pro”, and if you’re familiar with what John August does over at IMDB, then you get the idea.
I’m going to run this on a rotating basis, so for stretches, one pro will be answering the questions, and then when they burn out, we’ll head on to a new one.
Right now, we’ve got Cormac & Marianne Wibberley lined up to lob answers back at you.
If you haven’t joined the forum yet, it’s free and easy. Just follow this link to get there and register. The forum also features an integrated chat room (and word on the street is that actual screenplays sales have taken place in the chat room, so honestly…what the hell are you waiting for???).
I want to take this opportunity to thank the Wibberleys for being our inaugural writers in the Ask A Pro section of the forum, and I also want to thank all of you who continue to make this site a pretty popular destination. We’re up to nearly 25,000 unique visitors a month. That’s quite an impressive community.
For those of you who prefer my blatherings to anything else, there will be a fresh post in just a day or two.
It’ll never work!Five years ago, Steve Jobs introduced a nifty little mp3 player called the “iPod”.
Maybe you’ve heard of it.
Among the myriad articles celebrating the success of the iPod—a device so transformative, one can actually argue it has changed the way we live—one can find some other precious nuggets that reveal something wonderful about humanity.
William Goldman said it best: “Nobody knows anything…”
Here’s Mazin’s Corollary: “…but you have to believe that you do.”
Allow me to reprint for you a few sample comments from the forums at MacRumors, a popular site for Mac enthusiasts. These comments were written while members of the forum first heard the details of this new device called “iPod.”
I still can’t believe this! All this hype for something so ridiculous! Who cares about an MP3 player? I want something new! I want them to think differently! Why oh why would they do this?! It’s so wrong! It’s so stupid!
It’s now at the online Apple Store! $400 for an Mp3 Player! I’d call it the Cube 2.0 as it wont sell, and be killed off in a short time…and it’s not really functional.
All that hype for an MP3 player? Break-thru digital device? The Reality Distortion Field is starting to warp Steve’s mind if he thinks for one second that this thing is gonna take off.
Any way you spin this it is: 1. Not revolutionary. Big capacity mp3 players already exist. With Creative Labs’ entrance into the firewire arena, future nomads will have similar specs and better prices. 2. A bad fit. This product is outside Apple’s core competancy - computing devices. When many are calling for a pda, they release an MP3 player. 3. Without a future.
Here’s to another bullet in the foot…
This iPod is for spoil rich kids with insane parents or an Apple fan as fannatic as a Taliban. It has good features but forget about getting it for $399!!!! Never, who gets that thing is a very stupid person. Steve Jobs is under terrible consuling or is under too much pot. This propusal is not realistic at all. If Apple does something like this again is going down.
Won’t last. Another Cube.
In its current incarnation, the iPod will fail because it’s being sold into a relatively small market, and due to its limited functionality and high price. It’s another Cube, and I can’t understand why it’s so plainly obvious to us but not to Apple.
Heh. Now that’s amusing, huh? You can read the thread for yourself here. Sure, not every forum member was negative. Quite a few were positive…almost prescient!
Still, one common thread runs between most of the haters and the boosters.
More to the point…certainty masquerading as knowledge.
Unfortunately, that’s what screenwriting is.
Look, we are movie theorists. We write documents that present a text-only rendition of what we believe a good movie would be. We do not deliver it and say, “This is rather bad. Do not produce this.”
We say, “This will make a very good movie.”
Of course, we just don’t know. Like all speculative endeavors, we use our talent and our experience to craft the strongest possible theory with the greatest possible chance, but the best-laid plans…
You do realize that’s how bad movies happen, right?
Notice that a number of those unfortunate Cassandras I quoted above referred to Apple’s short-lived Cube, a notoriously ill-fated adventure in computing.
The iPod is a good movie. The Cube is a bad movie.
Both made by the same company…in the way that Patton and Captain EO were both written by the same man.
When you’re building your device (or writing your script), you do the best you can. In the end though, you are quite certain that you’ve done something good. Of course you are. Why would you stop building or writing if you didn’t think the device or script were ready?
The hard part is that our certainty sometimes backs the Cube and sometimes backs the iPod. The people we show our work to sometimes praise the Cube, and sometimes curse the iPod.
None of that will ever change the fate of the product.
And so…we’re stuck in a terrible Zen puzzle.
In order to write successfully, we must be certain that we are writing something the right way, even though such certainty is impossible.
We have to believe that we’re building the iPod.
Even when we’re building the Cube.
No, don’t go that far back…I’ve been writing for this site for a year and a half, and I’ve been dreading this post since I began.
It didn’t take long after the launch of The Artful Writer for The Question to be asked. It’s been asked a lot since then. A lot. Honestly, I’ve been resisting those words “How did you get your start?” for two excellent reasons.
Firstly, I find it terribly boring.
Secondly, I don’t think it’s going to have much relevance to anyone else.
Still, people keep asking, so here it is. I’m going to write it long, because I’m too tired tonight to be concise. Wherever I find places to possibly draw conclusions that might actually be helpful, I’ll bold them out. If I were you, I’d skip all the non-bolded text, but hey, you might be one of the people who asked The Question.
In the beginning (also known as 1992), I was a college lad who wanted to go into show business. I ran a public affairs radio program at school that had been started ten years earlier by a student named Garth Ancier. My experience writing, editing and producing media for broadcast sort of lit a fire in me.
One of the other alums of the radio program was working on a new sitcom called “Brooklyn Bridge,” and he promised me a production assistant job in the fall. I was thrilled. I’d graduate, spend one last lazy pot-smokin’ summer, and then hit L.A. in the fall and begin my career in the biz.
Two weeks before I graduated, the alum called to tell me that one of the other producers gave the job to a nephew. Honestly, I can’t remember if it was actually a nephew, but that makes it sound more annoying.
There are no sure things in this business. You have acheived something only when you can talk about it in the past tense.
I didn’t panic. No sir. After all, the summer before, I had interned at the Fox Network, and I was picked from hundreds of applicants, so obviously I was special. I would make it. Sure I would.
(later, my first boss, Dan McDermott, then the VP of Current Programming, would tell me that he chose me because I was, and I quote, “the least dorky.”)
And so, on July 5th, 1992, I packed my meager possessions into my meagerer Toyota and began driving across the country. I had $1400 to my name. I pretty much knew no one.
You don’t need to “know someone.” However, I definitely recommend having more than $1400 in your pocket. That was stupid.
I arrived in Los Angeles and quickly got an apartment to share with another college buddy who had come out to L.A. too. After first, last and the safety deposit, I was basically one month away from homelessness. Time to get a job. I went to The Friedman Agency to get a job…any job…but I figured since they placed you in the entertainment business, that was a plus.
Mind you, at no point had I ever considered writing. Okay? I just wanted to get a job. Sure, I had noodled on some spec sitcom scripts and thought myself a budding comic genius, but I never once thought that writing was something sane people could actually do for a living.
Louise at the Friedman Agency wasn’t interested in my fancy degree or my GPA or my permanent record. All she cared about was that I could type 110 words per minute.
Learn to type.
My first gig was at The William Morris Agency. In 1992, their employee manual was still xeroxed endlessly from an original hard-typed document. Yours truly was paid eleven bucks an hour to type the entire thing into Word Perfect.
If you work at William Morris and have read your employee manual…YOU’RE WELCOME.
My next temp job was at a boutique advertising agency called Jacobs & Gerber. Their gig was basically to produce promos for CBS shows. My position? Xerox temp. Because I applied myself diligently to my tasks, I was granted a permanent position as Xerox Boy.
Is writing your Plan A? Is your current job Plan B? Switch the letters. Make your current job Plan A. Why? The better you do what you do, the more opportunities you will receive…and opportunity is the currency all prospective writers need the most.
It was late October, 1992. I was a $20,000 a year Xerox Boy, and I was happy. So happy, that in a fit of anarchic mirth, I created a silly Halloween memo with fake blood stains and everything and passed it around the office.
An hour later, I was summoned to the office of the President of the company, an extremely sour and unimaginative creep named Albert Litewka.
And he fired me. Improper memo protocol, or something equally inane.
Sometimes you get fired.
As I cleaned out my desk in a stunned state, I got a call from the Creative Director of the agency. He liked my memo. “Yeah, well, it got me fired.”
He got me unfired.
Having appeared on the radar, I was quickly moved from Xerox Boy to junior copywriter. And while I had only made a jump from $20,000 to $23,0000 a year, the difference to me was enormous. I wasn’t an assistant anymore. I was a writer.
An awful one, but a writer nonetheless.
For the next two years, I churned out scores and scores of ads. And in those two years, I learned something that I wish every writer would learn before attempting to write a screenplay.
I learned how to write for production. That skill is something that simply isn’t taught at your UCLA extension or your USC class. It can’t be. Production is expensive. Even if the ads were only thirty seconds, I still got to write a ton of stuff that then got prepped, shot and posted.
Try and write for production any way you can. There simply is no substitute.
An exec at the agency was pals with a young marketing executive at Disney named Oren Aviv. Oren was looking for a guy who could write copy for movie posters and trailers. I was hired.
My career as a studio executive began. And for a while, I lived and breathed marketing. You can read about some of the lessons I learned (and their relevance to what we do) here.
Oren was a pretty ambitious guy (which clearly paid off…he’s only President of Production at Disney now), and he wanted to reach beyond marketing and into film production, so he encouraged me (and my then writing partner) to come up with ideas for movies.
Note again…I would not have been in this position had I not made Plan B my Plan A.
My partner and I saw Apollo 13, and while we enjoyed it, we thought it would have been much better if one of the astronauts was a complete idiot.
We pitched “Space Cadet” to Oren, he pitched it to Roger Birnbaum…
…and Roger bought it.
So there you go. Hard work and typing skills gets the boy into the right place at the right time, and he’s finally given his big break.
All I had to do is actually prove that I could write. And prove it I did. The script was good. The movie? Not so good. But the script? Good. Or at least…good enough.
I’ve been working as a screenwriter ever since.