As the writers’ strike wears on longer and longer, I take note of the ways in which it effects all areas of the creative community. While there are times it may seem like it doesn’t effect us in the low budget community all that much, it actually has a huge amount of impact on us.
Readers often ask me who I think is right and wrong in this whole thing. Personally, I feel like this strike is a symptom of an illogical system that’s lost touch with what makes it run. We’re all aware of the popularity of buying studios which started in the eighties and has progressed to the point where six corporations own all the studios in Hollywood. The purchases make sense from a corporate perspective because film is one of the most profitable exports America has going. Unfortunately, while the corporate perspective made sense to buy the studios, it quickly started trying to apply assembly-line politics to films. Not only does that not work (except on the lowest common denominator, such as the National Lampoon or American Pie movies, and then only for a time), but it has the warped view that pouring more money into films yields better, more profitable films. This yields a cycle where only the most universal films are made because of how much money they cost to make, but because our society has become much more individualistic, especially since the advent of the internet, these films rarely earn the money that was poured into them. At this point, the studios try to find an even more universal film to pour even more money into, but, no matter how many times they do that, it never changes the simple fact that a film is not the same as widgets, bolts, or light bulbs. As such, you can’t predictably make money creating films the way you do when you’re manufacturing brick-and-mortar stuff!
Because of this fact, the studio system tries to make money any place they can in order to shore up the holes in their proverbial dam. Once they find a new stream of revenue, they want to tap all of the resources that come from it. However, once the people who help make the films and TV shows (like writers, actors, and directors) find out about it, they want a piece of it as well, since, after all, they put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the content created.
Whenever this happens, the studio system draws a line in the sand and refuses to give any share of the new stream, stating that there is no telling how long the stream will last and that this stream is necessary for the studio system to keep making movies and/or TV shows. The last time this happened was in the longest writer’s strike in recent history: the strike of 1988, which lasted nearly six months. The issue at hand at that point was whether the writers would get a share of the newly popularized VHS tapes, which allowed people to buy copies of their favorite films to own in their homes. Eventually the producers did indeed cave into the writers’ demands, but their reluctance cost an estimated $500 million worth of revenue.
Twenty years later, it’s a new distribution method, this time through the internet. The request for a share of the profits is the same on behalf of the writers and the reason the producers don’t want to share is also the same. However, when the strike began, the producers were wanting to hang on even more doggedly than ever because they are spending so much more on films now (compare Pretty in Pink and Lethal Weapon to Titanic and the new Superman, for example) and, if they were to give in to the writers’ demands, they’d have to give into identical demands from both the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild). Both of these other guilds have their terms coming due in 2008 (with the DGA’s occurring just a couple days ago and SAG’s coming up in June). Fortunately for the studio system, a catastrophe was diverted when the Director’s Guild cut a deal without striking. If all three guilds were to strike, it would cause the current Hollywood system to virtually self-destruct. (Now, lest I be seen to be blowing Hollywood’s near “catastrophe” out of proportion, it should be stated that the Director’s Guild has never struck before and tends to have the most ties to the producers and the studio system.) Despite this show of solidarity from the directors to the studio system, much of Hollywood waits breathlessly to see what will happen with the writer’s strike and what will happen with the SAG negotiations in June. (Spokesmen for SAG recently stated that if the contract options were identical to the DGA’s, they would indeed strike.)
As though to insulate themselves from the impact of this strike and the possible SAG strike, a variety of different studio owned TV channels have been doing some serious “lifeboat”-playing. Already a multitude of shows have been axed, from new releases like Journeyman and the Galactica-backed Bionic Woman to old numerical favorites like 24 and The 4400. As the writing wells dry up, the networks scramble for programming to fill the nightly slots, reaching most regularly to reality programming. Whether it be new shows that have people humiliate themselves on a lie detector for cash like Fox’s Moment of Truth or old day-time contest shows like American Gladiators, reality programming is back in full swing.
Meanwhile, Hollywood has had to delve into the store-rooms of all the scripts they’ve optioned for decades. For all we know, now’s the time we’ll actually see Back to the Future IV-VI, because we all know that someone undoubtedly wrote those scripts after the last writer’s strike for just such a time as this! (Michael J. Fox was not available for comment on how much he would be involved in the new series, should it become a reality.)
So how does the continuing strike and the potential of additional strike effect us as microfilmmakers??
Well, because America will soon be relegated to endless spin-offs of America’s Next Top Gymnast, Who Wants to Dance Like a Millionaire, and Gambling Addicts Fit Club, there will be a lot more people searching for good content on the internet. (Even if the strike ended tomorrow, there would likely be at least three and a half months of delays before any new programming would be seen, as many TV shows would essentially have to start at ground zero.) This can really open doors for low-budget filmmakers who want to create broadband programming, especially with the new channel-creation programs like Adobe’s Apollo or Microsoft’s Silverlight.
For filmmakers who don’t want to get into online television creation, a hungry audience will still be searching the internet for new content and programs like Amazon UnBox (which is connected to CreateSpace) will allow them to download new Indie films and watch them on their own computers.
Obviously, Hollywood studios are going to be searching for more films at festivals, which means that festivals will be encouraged to allow more films in each year, which definitely can aid our readers in getting their name out there. (No final word yet on how many films have been bought for distribution at this year’s Sundance, but, if I were a betting man, I would bet that it’s highest that the Sundance festival seen since Robert Redford gave it its name.)
Meanwhile, if a double strike occurs between WGA and SAG, the potential for a future triple strike becomes a much greater possibility. If such a thing were ever to occur, Hollywood might find themselves usurped from being the big dogs of the theatrical distribution table. In such a potential free fall, a coalition of Indie studios might conceivably broker deals with NATO (The National Organization of Theater Owners) and get shared or exclusive distribution from the theaters for a new breed of Independent films. As neither the studios nor their parent companies are allowed to own the theaters that show their films (due to anti-monopoly laws) and NATO has long since voiced complaints with Hollywood’s vacillating interests and high fees, a deal with another corporate or creative conglomerate could be just what the doctor ordered.
As I have often said, these are creative and tumultuous times we live in. Those who refine their craft and keep an eye on the horizon can capitalize on this time, potentially becoming the renowned storytellers of a future generation.