THB #339: New Deal 1 - Hating The 8ing
It took a lot longer for the long tail to turn the filmed entertainment business into Max Max with a tablecloth and a nice bottle of wine than most of us expected. But here we are.
What we really need is a New Deal. But there is no Roosevelt to lead the way. There is no Roosevelt allowed, really.
Working against all institutional change is the fact that, unlike previous paradigm shifts in this industry, this shift that now needs to be shaken out like a sheet that’s been folded too long was not caused by overall economic industry distress, but rather, a choice that one company initiated for its own reasonable purposes, the results of which the rest of the industry watched in awe.
So now, the industry is beyond unsettled. And no one seems to know whose pocket they are supposed to be trying to get into for their piece of the pie.
The WGA is telling members that companies making and distributing content are doing great right now. This is false. But it is also true. Everything is about context. Everything is about which segment of the process gets you paid.
If a movie is funded, it becomes its own little ecosystem. The world is within that context for the people involved. There are wins and losses. There are people who are overpaid and underpaid. Short term success or failure can be flipped into long term failure or success.
Each producer/distributor is also its own ecosystem… which has other ecosystems within it. How is, say, Disney doing? Linear TV is still making money… but the threat for it to turn negative does exist. Direct-To-Consumer is losing money… but the window in which is can start making money is within a few years’ reach. Parks are doing great… but there is some sense that it will fall off and it remains vulnerable to another COVID-like threat, not to mention the Idiot Governor DeSantis.
Now… the thing is… WGA has a serious interest in every one of those individual content ecosystems. And it has no legitimate interest - unless WGA is concerned about Disney or someone else not paying their bills - in whether Disney is “doing well” or not.
Netflix, currently (and just recently), has the only Direct-To-Consumer streaming business that makes a profit. This may change. It may not change so fast. Linear, which has been widely written off, is still profitable. This may change. It may not change so fast.
Shouting that The Money is going great is a good way to rev up the WGA membership about the negotiations. But it is only kinda true. More importantly, it is almost completely irrelevant to WGA membership getting paid for the work its union represents.
If everything goes sideways for a producer and distributor, they are still responsible to paying the talent under the rules that have been set up in negotiations (union or agent). If things are going gangbusters for a producer and distributor, they are still responsible to paying the talent under the rules that have been set up in negotiations (union or agent).
That said, the Producers pleading poverty to the WGA is, on the other hand, complete bullshit. Where the various companies are financially with Streaming is not the responsibility of the writers. Nor is it central to their individual interests.
No one wants to just stay in their lane anymore. But knowing and controlling your lane, whatever that is, is the key to building a better future.
A company like Disney is not likely to become a money loser on the overall filmed entertainment side. But that is not the real question for them in this next 5 years. The question is whether, in the transition to Streaming as the dominant delivery system, Disney will be as profitable as they were before the transition.
That statistic may not seem important to people who aren’t Disney shareholders. Not a lot of people have sympathy for $100 billion companies. But whatever the new content delivery configuration at Disney in 5 years, it is likely to be less profitable than the last decade at Disney… and that hurts in their context.
If Disney wants to overspend on content to launch or grow its streaming business, the interest of WGA and other unions is getting paid fairly on each of the shows/films in which Disney decides to invest. They aren’t responsible, positively or negatively, for the strategic choices that Disney makes.
The huge question of the moment is how to correct for an industry that is producing more content than ever and paying writers less for that work than in the recent past.
It’s extremely complicated… just sit down to the light reading that is the WGA MBA. But it’s also pretty simple.
If the new standard - for a few years now - is paying writers minimum wage for their work on series…
… and, in many cases, the 8-episode standard is leading to smaller numbers of writers being hired and fewer payments being made to the writing staff for “written by” episodes… that is where things need to be adjusted… for every series… not just for the hits… not excluding the misses.
Writers below the Co-Executive Producer level noted above are absolutely not literal stakeholders in the success or failure of a given show. Everyone is affected by hits or misses, of course. But the system that has existed for all these years was built on a system that started with 20+ episode buys, which by its very nature limited the amount of time that could be spent “dicking around” and created opportunity because, with exceptions, no human can write 20 episodes in 9 months while also in the heat of production. Can or can’t… they don’t want to. As Brittani Nichols tweets, staff writers were expected to rise, season by season, show by show, in the past… and are now repeating that level (the bottom rung of the tv writing world) over and over without promotion.
Moreover, getting a job on a series is no longer a job for a full 9 months a year. Many of these contracts are just for 2 or 3 months. And as those shows have shorter contracts that pay less, the need to get multiple jobs each year just to make a living has become the new norm.
The first thing the new contract needs is a minimum payment structure that creates, perhaps, a longer window on a staff writer hire and a minimum for the overall pay during that contract that can be satisfied with or without a writing credit in that season of 8… say, $40,000 a month. Yes, that seems like a lot to a lot of people. But writers on these shows pay agents and managers and taxes, etc. And they are only being assured a short working window.
Think of it like this… if you are working for McDonald’s for $15 an hour, you can earn $600 a week before taxes or overtime. So you can pay your $500 a month rent. But if you are only given 15 hours a week, that $225 a week (minus taxes) check is going to make paying the $500 rent and for your food, phone, utilities, etc, very challenging. Now scale it up… and add in having to find a different job to switch to at least twice every year.
Maybe at 16 episodes a year, that minimum is reduced to $32,500 a month. The idea is to use the minimum scale, now being used against writers, to incentivize choices that are better for writers who are working for that minimum number.
Maybe there is a benefit for producers picking up a second season of 8, which could also be seen as a penalty for not. Maybe the first season of 8 has a higher monthly minimum ($50,000) that adjusts down for a second season contract ($35,000 a month).
I am spitballing these numbers. I don’t have enough detail to offer numbers that are a more precise fit (though the point of all of this is to put the burden of a living television industry wage on producers of short seasons). The real goal is more writers not working for the minimum… to have showrunners neither hoarding or gifting screen credits… for a working writer to be able to make a living without having a “second job” trying to find a next gig within months in order to pay the rent.
In the current dominant system, shows are being cancelled a lot more aggressively than they once were. Not only is this not the fault of the writers, but again, it undercuts the opportunity that would normally be growing into the job on that show…
not moving up a level… not getting more opportunities to get episodes one gets credit for writing.
Maybe it is time to break down the credit wall and not make being a credited writer as significant a part of getting paid a higher fee, putting the money budgeted for that into the staff.
As Bob Iger would say (and have misunderstood), everything should be on the table.
The television world has changed… from the target for being a hit show being 100 episodes to a run of 24 being unusually long and anything above 24 reserved only for the highest-tier of successful shows (the occasional exception being shows picked up domestically from other countries).
What else has changed? The library opportunity. More on that to come.