WHEN MODERNHUMORIST.COM CREATED a widely seen poster proclaiming, “When You Pirate MP3s, You’re Downloading Communism,” the line spoke for a whole generation. The Napster kids saw no problem with downloading music. If they were ripping off anyone, it was the multinational corporations who controlled the music industry.
One creator of that site, John Aboud, is now rallying members on the picket lines for the Writers Guild. Ironically, one of the major issues for the strikers is their demand for residual payments for downloads — extending the guild’s deal for VHS/DVDs to the Internet, cell phones and all forms of media “whether now known or hereafter developed.”
Aboud, a strike captain who also sits on the guild’s communications committee, has been part of the WGA’s preparations for two years. He says that while the guild staff does strike research and support, and the WGA leadership negotiates, it is up to strike captains to “keep the communication going . . . We find the ways to make this our story, to tell the story through blogs, freelance pieces, to drive the narrative. We’re here to put a human face on the strike.”
And that nimble-mindedness may be the key to a surprisingly strong strike that seems, at least as of press time, to be listing in favor of the writers. As one founder of UnitedHollywood.com, Aboud keeps guild members and their supporters apprised of picket-line locations and special events as well as videos, links and news about the strike. Like the 35-year-old Aboud, who was just a kid in 1988, two-thirds of today’s guild members were not members during that year’s historic strike. Many were still in high school or college.
Now, they’re consumers of media, they’re online savvy, and after dropping 40 grand for a Master of Fine Arts degree, they want their turn.
For many older writers, the strike is bringing back memories of the great days of political protest — the 1960s and ’70s, and the guild’s earlier strikes. But for plenty of younger writers, these last few weeks are the glory days — their first experience with public protest, and with landing on the nightly news. Too young for Vietnam protests, too old for World Trade Organization demonstrations, their experiences are proving to be highly exhilarating. The result is a level of exuberance that has drawn the media to their side and helped drive the widespread public support for the writers.
Although it’s unlikely the studios — or the guild — saw it coming, Aboud candidly says, “When people picket, they get radicalized — especially writers.” In their normal workaday world, he explains, “Feature writers mostly work alone; TV writers work in small groups. If you want to get the membership to really feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, force them to stop working and walk around chanting slogans in the sun for a while.”
He touts the growing radicalization of the picketers, saying, “It’s one thing to agree to a lousy deal when you’re sitting in your house in the dark. It’s another thing when you’ve been hoofing it with a bunch of people in the same trade. You don’t want to let down your side.”
Little surprise, then, that during the November 20 march on Hollywood Boulevard, the loudest cheer from the crowd came when Teamsters honcho Leo Reed proudly declared the WGA to be a “militant” union. Screenwriters might not get respect from the corner offices, but on sites like Whedonesque and JohnAugust.com, fans are communicating with their idols directly — and the writer, of all things, is the star for many. Even unaffiliated writers looking to break into the business see the struggle as their own and have been turning out on the picket lines.
The WGA is demanding that writers get 2.5 percent of all gross “new media” revenue flowing from content they write. Currently, writers’ residuals are based on a far smaller slice of gross sales. A recent study by Global Media Intelligence suggests that studios are paying out as much as 25 percent of a film’s profits in residuals. Last year, that amounted to $3 billion in after-release payouts. Yet from this river of cash, writers received only $121 million. By contrast, an actor or director can receive residuals ranging from $20 million to $70 million for a single picture.
In college business courses, the WGA’s existing deal is taught as a cautionary tale about the danger of compromising on small things that have a faint potential of becoming substantial issues in the future. Now, with Jesse Jackson and John Edwards making guest appearances at rallies, and actors and musicians showing up to hand out snacks, serenade strikers and speak to the media, some younger writers are indeed getting “radicalized,” talking about jettisoning the residual model in exchange for increased upfront minimum payments.
Their argument is that, with film and TV distribution fragmenting to online, cell phones, screens in airports and other mediums, writers should stop worrying about where or how often their content is placed — and simply demand a sizable payment when the writing is turned in.
Younger writers involved in the strike already seem to be living that fragmented, if promising, reality. Eric Kaplan, writer for Futurama, believes that the “democratization of production” — cheaper cameras and editing systems accessible to the middle class — are giving writers both economic and creative independence. Kaplan sounds half poet, half banker, when he says, “I believe that if you have an original voice, you can get enough people to find you and monetize you.”
But he acknowledges that the initial cutting of ties with the corporate mothership “can be frightening.” His own work speaks to the choice he made: His Internet series, Zombie College, was shown on Icebox.com, but it was also optioned by old media — 20th Century Fox.
Another example is Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, who signed a deal with Media Rights Capital, a feature-film financing company, to create original, made-for-Internet video shorts. The videos will be coupled with unavoidable banner ads distributed through Google AdSense, which delivers advertising to tens of thousands of Web sites, and will target the young-male demographic. That’s a big contrast to offering such content on one site with an ad campaign that pulls viewers to the site. This “push content” might also retrain — many would say manipulate — Web surfers into watching ads they’d normally block or ignore.
One avenue used by the younger crowd to get around the studios and directly to fans and consumers is typified by what happened to Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence’s new half-hour show, Nobody’s Watching. It was originally shot for the WB, was then “leaked” to YouTube as a pilot and was, as a result of the buzz, resuscitated online by NBC Universal.
Such success has even prompted older hands to get into the act. Just look at veterans like Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who had their biggest hit with the now-ancient Thirtysomething and wrote a pilot for ABC three years ago called Quarterlife. Although ABC passed on it, NBC will now broadcast 36 eight-minute segments of it on NBC (and NBC.com) — after Quarterlife gained an audience by being shown on MySpace.com and on its own site.
Despite all these avenues for independence from the studios, and the surprising strength of the strike, not everybody wants to see the writers succeed — including some outer-fringe writers who see the writers themselves as fish who’ve now grown too big.
One writer, posting a comment on Gizmodo and claiming to write for an Internet alternative to television, described his dream of an imploding studio system: “We are thrilled to see that the writers are doing their best to kill the goose that gives them their golden eggs . . . I say, bring on the future! Can the ‘star’ actors be far behind? And then the producers. Any kid with a cheap DV camera can produce great stuff. I say ‘Bring it on!’?”
Aboud thinks major change is coming too. But as a partisan in this battle, he naturally argues that the studios are the ones who will suffer. To him, the conglomerates who run the studios and networks, still insisting that “they need three more years to study the possibilities of the Internet” are proving that the suits, and not the writers, “haven’t learned a thing from the implosion of the music business.”