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Posts Tagged ‘entertainment industry’

Time to think Creatively About the Future of Screenwriting

"Writer Niven Busch Lying on Sofa with Newspaper over His Face as He Takes Nap from Screenwriting," by Paul Dorsey.Hollywood is awash in blockbusters, huge-budget movies that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars from box offices around the globe. Film production in New York is at record levels, and studios will be rolling out dozens of big sequels, sci-fi adventures, comedies and star vehicles this year. But screenwriters are finding it more difficult than ever to make a living in this business. How could this be?

The major studios are owned by multinational conglomerates that seem stuck in an Old Economy way of thinking: minimize risk and maximize promotion; play it safe with product development and hope the market keeps absorbing what you’re selling. This approach didn’t work so well in the automobile industry, which learned the hard way that innovation and product quality are keys to long-term success. But the movie business keeps consolidating to the perceive security of conformism.

Don’t get me wrong. Audiences tend to be pretty smart, and many recent hits have been intelligent, well-constructed explorations of important cultural and political themes. Or at least they’ve been powerfully entertaining. But it is almost inevitable that the focus on mega-movies squeezes out films that are more intimate, independent, intriguing and innovative.

Many members of the Writers Guild of America, East, do very well in this context. Their genius for crafting stories that move and cohere, for developing characters with depth and appeal, is the foundation upon which big studio productions are built – and producers know it. Unfortunately, other Guild members find it increasingly difficult to work in the current environment. Studios are not spending nearly as much in development, so writers who do not present a sure, bankable thing have fewer opportunities to expand their ideas into complete projects. Financing for independent films has nearly disappeared, and the major studios’ emphasis on reliable box-office returns means that fewer and fewer small, more thoughtful films get from screenplay into production. Thus, opportunities for screenwriters are shrinking.

There was a time when Hollywood put writers on staff, paying them to develop ideas and to craft screenplays in order to feed a growing production machine. Now, virtually every film-writing job is freelance – that is, the screenwriter must pitch an idea to a studio or a producer; or must convince the producer that he or she would bring the just the right vision or chops to a project the studio has already decided to pursue; or must sell himself or herself as the perfect choice to rewrite or tighten up an already-drafted screenplay. And, of course, the screenwriter does not want to seem too demanding or uncooperative because that might make it harder to get hired on future projects. In other words, at each phase of the movie-making process, screenwriters increasingly devote themselves to self-marketing. This creates pressure on writers to offer more work for less pay—or even for no pay at all.

Perhaps classical economic theory would suggest this is a fine thing. And at some level of abstraction it is true that, when the supply of a particular service exceeds the demand, the price will drop. But that is more of an ideological construct than a description of the real world. If we want people to write compelling films that educate and entertain us, they need to be able to earn a decent living doing so; a race to the bottom, economically, would undermine the quality of what we watch. In any event, our research indicates that most of our members who are employed are paid significantly above the minimum rates negotiated by the union, and working members report that their “quotes” have been steady or have increased in recent years. It seems that getting a gig is more difficult than ever, and once you get the gig you have to work harder, but the pay has remained good. So much for classical economics.

People become screenwriters because it is their passion to create compelling films; to do that, they have to get hired (this includes people who bring complete ideas or scripts to the studio). And once they get hired, they want their vision to be realized on-screen – in other words, they want the movie to be made. This makes it very difficult to resist the pressure to write more for less compensation.  In my view, as the WGAE grapples with the new realities of the film industry, we need to think about how to address this underlying dynamic. How do we protect members from the pressure to work for free in order to get hired to work for pay, and in order to get their movies made?

It is against Writers Guild rules to write without getting paid – no free writing to get hired, no free rewriting. But I am not sure a successful strategy can be based solely on requiring individual members to risk that they will not get hired, or will not have their work produced. In 2012, we hope to generate a robust conversation among screenwriters to develop better strategies. Our project is to identify other methods of ensuring that people who have devoted themselves to the craft of film-writing can be rewarded for their work and can earn a decent living. Perhaps there is a way to insist that the studios increase development funding, or make resources available for smaller films, or provide steadier employment for more writers. We shall see what some creative thinking can produce.

Size Really Does Matter

The numbers for online video consumption in the U.S. came out from comScore (basically, the internet-video version of Nielsen, but site-specific). I found out about it through Marc Hustvedt’s great online video resource, tubefilter.tv.

Two key takeaways:
- 6.3 BILLION viewing sessions. Everybody is watching internet video, and watching more and more of it.
- The average video duration is 5.4 minutes. It’s been climbing steadily from December 2007.

Think about that second stat for a second. If you’re coming from TV land, 5.4 minutes doesn’t sound like much screentime. But if you’re coming from web video land, this is huge.

When my partners and I started The Burg way back in 2006, comScore wasn’t even around, but online ‘common sense’ was. This common sense told us, nay, SCREAMED at us, that a minute and a half was an ideal video length, and anything longer than 3 minutes was suicide. This frightened us, as a typical episode of The Burg was anywhere from 14 to 22 minutes long. So, we played it safe. We began to create shorts of anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (yes, even our shorts were longer than most people’s ‘longs’.) We interspersed our normal eps with our shorts. We fully anticipated looking at our viewcount and having much less views for our longer eps.

The exact opposite happened. Our views actually went down every time we posted a short. Why? We don’t know exactly. But after talking to fans, we have a pretty good idea: they were outside the chronology of the story. They were little jokes, standalone scenes, things that didn’t fit in the tightly plotted and structured episodes of The Burg. And so, people didn’t care as much. I knew right then that we had something good. People were hooked on the structure and the story and didn’t mind the length.

Ever since then, I’ve rigidly maintained that length should not be the top deciding factor when you’re creating your content. I’ve been mocked for this, as there are many creators who believe otherwise. In the early days, there were a lot of 90-second episodic thrillers. For me, even when well produced, the story jolted and jittered, because 90 seconds of a thriller is enough to get you to a cliffhanger, but usually seems to stop short of great character development. When working with other online portals, I’ve had to cut 5 minute shorts to under 3 minutes, and in the process, lost some of the best moments because they just didn’t fit. (This is not to say you can’t make a great episode in 90 seconds – of course you can. I just think you shouldn’t have to.)

I get why this happens in TV. You have a fixed inventory of time. 22 minutes for your sitcom once commercials are factored in. It becomes a surgical process (and to a degree, it should with all content). But on the internet, there is no such restriction. Yet content creators and programmers decided to all limit themselves to one anyway. It seems cynical, arbitrary, and a big underestimation of viewers’ tastes.

Well, it seems that common sense was wrong in this case. People are now, officially, measurably, watching longer and longer video. And 5.4 minutes is the average. Meaning, many people are consuming video that’s much, much longer.

As Hustvedt states, “If the same trajectory were to be taken forward a few years, which is probably a conservative estimate given the current market, we’d expect to see average online video duration at 10.4 minutes by 2014.”

Which means, by my shoddy estimate, people are going to be ready for The Burg by… let’s see… May 2017. Hm. Oh well. Better 11 years early than too late.

The Long Tail Theory: Why Webseries Creators Need Net Neutrality

The following remarks were delivered by Thom Woodley at the WGAE’s Capital Hill briefing on Internet policy.
* * *

Thom Woodley speaks in Senate Judiciary room

Thom Woodley at WGAE Hill briefing in the Senate Judiciary Committee room

Thank you, it’s an honor to be here.
I am a writer, and a creator of content, and as such, by necessity, an entrepreneur. What I’m going to talk about today are the business models of web video, how the open web allows creators to do innovative work, and the dangers that paid prioritization creates for that innovation.

In our discussions of net neutrality today, we’ve a couple of times heard the comparison of the internet to highways. I’d like to expand that. Let’s suppose that a state decides adopt the prioritization model to their roadwork. This would mean they don’t pave roads in a certain area as well as other ones. We all know what would happen. The economy in that area suffers. Trucks can’t get to it, no one wants to drive along the bumpy, dirty road.

It’s the same online. Pavement equals streaming speed. If the streaming speed is slow, no one will watch. We don’t force the people who live on that road, the businesses on that road, to pay directly for paving the whole thing. But Internet Service Providers want to do that exact thing to content providers. If we don’t have net neutrality, ISPs could charge content providers money to deliver their content at a reasonable enough speed.

I am going to make the case that that is tantamount to killing a new industry before it has developed.
There is a business model of independent web video. There are a few. They exist, but they’re still nascent. And it’s very different from television or most other traditional economic structures.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Long Tail Theory of economics. I’ll just give a quick abstract. Say we’re in a book store. 80% of people who come into that store will tend to buy the same top 20% of books. The remaining 20% of people may also buy that top tier, but in addition, seek out products that are more diverse, less common denominator. When we chart these spending habits, rank of products sold against volume of sales, we get a short ‘body’ and a long ‘tail’.

Now, in a store, there’s a physical inventory. So it only makes sense to keep that top 20% in stock. Of course, for an online store, inventory is more vast. So you can open up the full 100% of products, and get that extra business. And here’s a hidden secret: people in this long tail will tend to pay more for the products they love, if they are perceived as rare.

How does this relate to television? TV has a fixed inventory of time that it is selling. As well as a great expense in broadcasting it. So it only makes sense to program shows that 80% of the populace will seek out. The same with movie theaters – a fixed number of screens. But web video has no fixed period of time. It has no fixed numbers of screens. Strictly speaking, it has no distributional limits, except for streaming speed.

That means that online, this long tail of specialized content is now open for everybody.

From an advertising perspective, we know that a message moves farther and more effectively when it is highly tailored to its audience. You are three times more likely to watch a video if a friend shared it to you. So advertisers have an excellent model here. Let’s take as an example, an award-winning and very popular series I participate in called The Temp Life. It is sponsored by a staffing agency who could never afford to buy TV time. But they could afford a more specified and tailored web production with Hollywood celebrities like Milo Ventimiglia and Illeana Douglas. And the show just finished its 5th season, which is longer than most real Hollywood shows.

Web video, due to its long tail nature, has the tendency to gather audiences of more specific demographics. These shows function with a smaller audience, but they become more valuable to the sponsor. My show The Burg gathered an audience of hipsters and influencers mostly based in New York. It’s the kind of audience TV shows desperately try to attract, but had not reliably done so. Sure, the show did not rack up the millions of views per episode that a TV show needs. That’s okay. We did not need it. We had a highly activated audience who, when we did do sponsorships, were much more accepting of our sponsors’ products.

Web TV will not be, in the future, about gathering the ‘most views’, but gathering the ‘best views’.
But it’s worth pointing out that putting any of this content behind a paywall, or tiered download situation where it didn’t stream quickly, that would have killed it. People would not have watched.
There are two more models I’d like to briefly discuss.

One is the audience-supported show. Take the show Anyone But Me. It’s a multiple award-winning show about a lesbian teenager and her struggles. It’s excellent. It tells a difficult story about a topic some would think is controversial. And it likely would never have been made on TV. They are able to make this show because they have an audience who is demanding it. Again, it’s a smaller audience, but they are so passionate about this show that they pay for it. Not per download – by donation.
But it’s tight. Profit margins are slim in both of these models. If we were charging Anyone But Me an extra fee to stream fast enough so that the audience can watch it, then they probably would not be able to make it.

Another model that is developing is even more interesting to me, as a small business owner: the local webseries scene.
Distribution is, at present, open to everyone. I can make a video and put it up – there are no walls between me and a prospective audience of millions. At the same time, the means of film production are accessible to everyone, with consumer-level editing software and digital cameras. This means that a webseries can be generated and created anywhere, for any audience. This is of course different from film and TV, where you have to be in LA or NY.

What we are seeing now is communities of content creators and webseries makers beginning to pop up in every state of the union. In places that never had any sort of film industry before, we suddenly see one popping up. And it can be sponsored by local advertisers. I point to one of the shows I’m involved in, Greg and Donny, which is about two guys just chatting about stuff going on in the small, post-industrial steel town Johnstown, PA. Now, that sounds like a very specific show that no one outside that town would want to watch, right? Well… stay tuned.

I believe in a few years, we will be seeing small town film scenes. Communities of webseries creators and vloggers from Maine to Utah. Decentralized micro-industries of creative professionals from Alabama to Wyoming. I believe we will see this… down the road.

But not if the road is too expensive to travel on.
Net neutrality is vital to keeping the lanes of communication open. The creative economy of the future depends on it. Thank you.
___________________

Writer and web video pioneer Thom Woodley created one of the first narrative web series “The Burg“, the Streamy and Webby nominated shows “The All-For-Nots“, “All’s Faire” and “Greg & Donny“, and is the founder of DIORAMA, a new web video channel aimed at programming television-quality independent content.

Dialogue for One

Sign for a laundry called Soap Opera by Brent Moore/SeeMidTN.com

by Brent Moore/SeeMidTN.com

I’m amazed by the questions I’m asked when I tell someone I write for a soap opera.  What’s surprising is that they’re almost always the same questions and never questions I was asked when I wrote for prime time.  The first is, “How far in advance do you write?”  For producers, the answer would probably be, “Not far enough.”  For writers, it’s, “Too far.”  The time between writing the breakdown (the outline from which a script is written) and the air date varies a little from show to show, but generally it’s 10 to 12 weeks.  Producers like as much time as possible to handle the business of putting together a show. But with that much lag time, writers may introduce a new character and write for him or her for nearly three months before ever seeing them on the air.  I’m not sure why this subject piques people’s curiosity, but that’s my cocktail party answer.

The second question is, “How do you come up with the stories?”  The short answer is, “Every way conceivable.”  Some stories are inspired by news items – a returning soldier coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, a governor hiding his homosexuality, a woman dealing with infertility and surrogacy.  Some stories come from the characters themselves.  Bringing back a character who was once in love with a woman now married to his brother … well, you can see the possibilities.  In some cases the source is literary – take, for example, the story of a power hungry assistant convincing his boss that his wife is having an affair, leading to tragedy.  Does the name Othello ring a bell?

The most common and most baffling question I get is, “So, do you just write for one character and one storyline?”  I have no idea how this myth started but I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked.  I’ve tried to wrap my head around how it would work.  Imagine that “my character” is a young woman, Mireille.  The story I’m writing is about her search for the man who killed her sister.  An associate is writing for Rico, a doctor finding the courage to love again after a painful event in his past.  A meeting between these characters might go something like this:

MIREILLE
It was you all along!  My sister loved you, she trusted you, but all you ever wanted was to take over
the company.  You killed her, I know that now!  And so do the police.

RICO
Will you marry me?

Actually, everyone on the team of writers for a daytime serial writes for every character in every story.  On any given day there can be three or more overlapping stories and twelve or more characters whose lives intertwine.  Writing for only one character … well, I think that’s called a monologue.
Lately, the question I’m most often asked is, “Will soap operas survive?”  When I started writing for daytime, doom and gloomers told me soap operas would be dead in five years.  That was fifteen years ago.  Granted, there are far fewer soaps now than there were then.  Women are out working, the target audience isn’t home during the day, and with a DVR, it’s no longer necessary to be home when a show airs. There’s competition from hundreds of cable channels.  It’s a rough time for the daytime industry.  But the numerous blogs and websites devoted to soaps, the magazines for daytime viewers and the fan mail we get tell me people still love their shows.  They want continued drama.  They want soap operas.  But that doesn’t answer the question.  When people ask if soaps will survive, I can only say, “I sincerely hope so.”

¡Viva las telenovelas!

Telenovela billboard in Portugal

photo by Jaan-Cornelius K.

Some years ago, a Peruvian man who heard I wrote for “One Life to Live” told me he’d learned English by watching the show.  When I started studying Spanish a few years ago, I decided to follow his lead and reinforce my Spanish lessons by watching a telenovela.

I began my foray into this literally foreign territory with a show called “Mundo de Fieras” (“World of Wild Ones”) because it was just beginning and aired at a convenient time in the evening.  I confess I understood very little dialogue in the premiere episode – ¡Ay, caramba! They talked fast! – but I was basically able to follow what was happening on screen.  It was about a struggle between twin brothers (I guessed the smiling one with a loving family was good and the snarling one with the eye patch was evil), and about their love for two women (I supposed the brunette leaving a convent was good and the one with the heavy eye makeup and the long curly blonde extensions was evil). Within a couple of weeks I’d picked up some useful vocabulary, like the oft-repeated embarazada.   I wondered why one female character was constantly embarrassed, and why everyone else kept talking about her embarrassment until I understood that embarazada means “pregnant.”  I wasn’t learning quite as much Spanish as I’d hoped, but I was getting an education.  Though I knew telenovelas differed from American soap operas in that they aired for a finite time, generally six to nine months, and so progressed toward a predetermined conclusion, I discovered that the differences go far deeper.

Belly of pregnant woman

photo by Mahalie Stackpole

Perhaps the biggest difference is that while American soaps are struggling to keep their audience, telenovelas are watched by an estimated two billion people in a hundred countries.  What makes these shows so wildly successful?  From what I can tell by having now watched several different telenovelas, they’re pretty predictable; the star-crossed lovers introduced in the first episode will get together in the last, the villain will be punished.  The “good” characters will find their faith in God rewarded, the comic couple will marry.  There will be some public service message, like on one episode of “Destilando Amor” when every character recycled his or her trash in appropriate bins (yes, seriously).  Why, then, do viewers not only faithfully watch each episode of one telenovela but excitedly anticipate the premiere of the next one?  Is it just a cultural phenomenon?  Is it the structure of the telenovela itself, Dickensian in nature, a serialized drama with a satisfying ending?  Is it seeing the same actors in different roles – a chaste heroine in one show transformed into a murderous vixen in another?  (For example, actor Maurice Benard going from mob boss Sonny Corinthos on “General Hospital” to priest on a new show.)   Is it that telenovelas air not only in the daytime, but also in the evening, when there’s a greater audience at home to watch, both male and female?  Is it the variety these shows offer – one show may be a period piece, one a gritty urban drama, one a bodice-ripper romance?  And is it something American television producers can co-opt?

I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but as the American soap opera continues to struggle for survival, I think the producers of daytime television might be wise to look toward their cousins south of the border and study the secret of their success. As for me, I’m looking for the next telenovela to watch.  Bit by bit, my Spanish is improving.  But some things need no translation.  Whether it’s an American soap or a telenovela, if two characters are simultaneously embarazadas, there’s a 100% chance those babies are going to get switched.