Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Incredible Ron Rifkin

Via the HuffPo blog of Jon Robin Baitz:

At one PM, Ron Rifkin and I walk away, and have some lunch. But not before
he explains to a French journalist, in perfect French, that he is here "because without the word, what is there?...There is nothing..." It is capped by a perfect Gallic shrug, as good as any Parisian who knows the truth is the truth is the truth. C'est la guerre.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

WGA STRIKES!

Jim Henshaw has an excellent post which I think should be given consideration by everyone who cares a whit about the film business. I’m going to post it in it’s entirety here, and if Jim wants it down, please let me know and I’ll just excerpt it.

I think we’re still in early days with this. Folks have a vague notion of how their lives will be affected by the strike, but they haven’t really hunkered down inside it and had to make tough choices – rent or car note? Birthday gifts or gas money? Those days are coming. The only way for writers to come out ahead in this is to immediately effect the economics of the studios and networks. That only happens by galvanizing your base: viewers and fans. Since it’s clear that the AMPTP isn’t planning to go back to the table (and, yes, I’ve heard all these rumors of back-channel talks, and all I can say is if they aren’t above board, there’s something shady going down), writers need to immediately impact the jobs and economic security of the people on the other side. Fear runs both ways.

I also think it’s well past time to ally with the other unions in the country and get them on board with signs of support. Stickers, bracelets, you name it, it should be out there so that the strike calls attention to Corporate Greed versus Labor unions. Teachers, nurses, firefighters, cops, teamsters, they’re organized and should be called up and asked to show solidarity. I’ve heard directly from insiders that the studio executives believe the writers are foolish, na├»ve and short-sighted for striking. These guys don’t think there will be any progress made, and that if there is any concession, it will be nominal, meant to keep the WGA leadership from losing face.

I’m a military brat, so, to me, those are fighting words.

Anyway, here’s Jim’s excellent post:

Half of me is on strike and half isn't. Half goes to work every day and half doesn't. I'm a multi-hyphenate writer member of the WGA and the Writers Guild of Canada, producer and of late director. Explaining how I fragmented so much is far too complicated. To be honest, I don't fully understand it myself.

With the WGA on strike, my business in that realm is at a standstill. On the plus side, the long distance phone bill this month promises to be a little more manageable. On the WGC half, I can write for Canadian companies working in Canada and I'm fielding calls from Canadian producers trying to figure out how to profit from the current labor disruption and hoping I'll get aboard that train.

Not a chance.

There's much at stake in this WGA/AMPTP dispute and no matter how you frame it, doing anything but fully supporting the WGA is tantamount to helping the American media conglomerates gut our fellow writers -- and do the same to directors, actors and anybody else who works in film and television as soon as they finish with the scribes.

Big Media is in trouble. Oh, they've put a rosy face on things. All those recent acquisitions and mergers have allowed them to appear fat and happy at the bottom line. But the risk averse nature of the new corporate owners has gradually led to their TV audience dwindling. Repetitive styles and sequels do not make for a reliable source of steady cash at the box office. DVD sales have peaked. The Music business is in freefall and everybody seems to be going to the internet.

The internet is where the money and the future lies.

Only the corporations don't own or control the internet.

Yet.

Under the current system, the movie business is financed primarily by DVDs, followed by the box office and then sales to television and other distribution systems. Problem is that because of their own risk aversion and mismanagement, that money
isn't going to the studios that make the movies anymore. Global Media Intelligence in association with Merrill Lynch, just published a report concluding that much of the studio income (current and future) has already been alotted to the top stars, directors and producers in the form of participation deals. That's a share of the gross revenue, not just the profits, of a movie.

Major studios are now giving away as much as 25 percent of a film's receipts under these agreements. Some stars even get a share of the sales of popcorn and milk duds.

Industry-wide, the payout was $3 billion last year alone, with many of these players still making fortunes even when the films themselves lose money. It's a system that closely replicates the corporate structure of the companies controlling today's media; where obscene sums are paid to a few but at the expense of everyone else involved and imperiling the very business that could easily sustain them all.

In TV, the economic climate is just as bad because of the same level of greed and mismanagement. Last year, a relatively good one by all forms of measurement, the major networks still had to give back $200 Million to their advertisers in the form of "make goods"; meaning free commercial time to make good on promises of audience numbers that weren't delivered.

One week into the strike, late night ratings were down 30% and numbers in all time slots are expected to decline precipitously once current shows run out of original material.

The question is not only how much the nets will have to "make good" this season, but how much their advertising clients will be willing to offer up front in June to finance next year's pilots and series. The prevailing wisdom is -- a whole lot less than they did this year.

This mess is the result of stupidity. The whole system could easily be run better, creating a positive financial outcome for all concerned. But then all those concerned might leverage some creative control or ask for a share of income that better reflects their contribution and that just isn't allowed.

So Big Media's only hope to regain and retain the profit margins they've enjoyed to date is to break the unions and control content on the internet. But building the same stranglehold on creativity and distribution they've enjoyed up to now requires complete and absolute control of every penny flowing through that new media conduit.

If they break the writers, they'll move on to break SAG whose membership has both a shorter average professional career and a lower median income, making it harder for most SAG members to sustain any long term resistance. Directors, the smallest guild, would inevitably follow and that will be that.

The thin gruel that makes up the bulk of what's on television and available at the multiplex would now come to you online as well.

This isn't a battle between Big Media masquerading as Producers and a bunch of guys who write scripts. It's the opening salvo of a war over who can have a place in the media of tomorrow, It's also a reflection of the desperation of conglomerates whose only hope of creating shareholder value is through the complete elimination of all shared revenue streams and the subjugation of their workers.

So what can you do?

Being a thousand miles from the nearest picket line, I asked myself the same question and came up with a list. Here are 10 things you can do to support the striking writers of the WGA, their fellow artists and the countless others who provide you with your entertainment options.

1. STOP WATCHING AMERICAN TELEVISION. I'm not saying kick the TV habit. just stop watching anything created or broadcast by any of the BIG 6, Newscorp, Time Warner, GE, Viacom, Sony and MGM. That may mean watching CBC in Canada or a lot of tele-novellas stateside, but you'll survive and you might even find something you like. If you must watch "House" and "CSI" until they're out of original episodes, so be it. But please don't watch the reruns or what replaces them. And if the Neilsen people call before then, tell them you're not watching anything and tell them why.

2. STOP BUYING AND RENTING DVDS. Writers get virtually nothing from their sale, either to you or the rental place. Tell the kid at Blockbuster why you're not renting from him. He's a film geek and doesn't like studio product for more reasons than you'll ever understand and will therefore appreciate your "stickin' it to the man". Once this is over, he'll happily have a free bag of M&M's and a big Coke waiting to greet your return.

3. STOP DOWNLOADING from iTunes or any other pay site for media. Writers get nothing from those purchases. Yes, downloading from pirate sites is stealing. But paying for downloads when the revenue is not shared with the creators is corporate theft. Is stealing from thieves a crime? I'll let your own moral compass be your guide on that one. Watch what you already own. Swap with friends. Just don't put another dollar in the hands of the WGA's persecutors until this is over.

4. STOP GOING TO MOVIES. Again, I'm not asking you to give up date night or Sunday afternoon with the kids. Just don't go to see anything made by the BIG 6. Their names are plastered all over the ads, so the marks of the beasts are quite visible.

There's a ton of indy features you can go to see instead, along with art films, documentaries and foreign films. And those foreign flicks are not all in French, Swedish or Italian. Remember: Canadians, Australians and the British all speak English and also make some damn good movies. Try breaking down other cultural barriers you might have too because there's great stuff made by the Chinese, the Japanese and at least a million different guys in Bollywood.

5. STOP BUYING PRODUCTS from the multi-nationals who own the networks and studios. A comprehensive list of their holdings can be found here. Your Mom or your girlfriend/boyfriend does not need a GE hair dryer or a Westinghouse toaster oven for Christmas. Buy jewelry instead. At least then you're only supporting local warlords and slave traders, in some cases, a moral step up from the average Multinational CEO.

There's also a lot of guys who aren't named Sony making Plasma TVs. Get your news and sports information online instead of buying Time or Sports Illustrated. The information you get will also be less than a week old. And understand that people write good books that aren't published by Simon & Shuster (another Viacom company).

Y'know it's appalling how much these people own and yet they still can't seem to make ends meet without screwing writers. I think their shareholders should be asking who's in charge.

6. BECOME A SHAREHOLDER. Buy one share of one or all of the BIG SIX. Given what's going on, you might want to make that purchase on margin and short the stock. Then start phoning management to complain about how things are being run. Be a pest. You're a shareholder. It's your money they're throwing around on private jets and gourmet lunches while box office and ratings are suffering. Ask a lot of questions about those movie participation deals. How come the shareholders weren't told a quarter of the cash flow was going to that Spielberg guy and Tom Cruise? Why should your dividends end up financing E-meters?

Hound them about the accuracy of their books too. Do you think these people would only cheat writers?

7. THE SAME GOES FOR TV SPONSORS. Find out who buys ads on your favorite show and phone them up. Tell the guys at Ford that you want 24 episodes of "24" or you're going across the street to the Dodge dealership. You might also ask what kind of message they're sending by having a guy who's going to jail for DUI as their product spokesman while you're at it.

Overall, let any sponsor know that you're not very happy with them using their ad dollars to support businesses like TV networks who don't treat their employees fairly. Suggest that you won't be buying their product until they pull their ads. If enough people call, that strategy works. I know, I've been on the wrong side of it. Even if it doesn't work, you'll get a nice letter with some coupons.

8. COMPLAIN TO YOUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES. There's an election coming up in the USA. Call your local candidates and anybody running for President and ask where they stand -- on the side of greedy, faceless corporations or ordinary people who can outvote them on a scale of about 10,000 to one? When they patronize you with the obvious answer, demand to see some tangible proof. There are photo-ops aplenty for any politician who walks a WGA picket and a lot of questions that need to be asked of those not brave enough to show up.

In Canada, this political objective can be accomplished by asking your MP how come
the CRTC allows Canadian networks to buy so much programming from people who don't want writers to earn residuals which could support their families in a land without universal health care, subsidized theatre and guaranteed maternity leave.

9. PHONE PETER CHERNIN AND LESLIE MOONVES. These two network CEOs told WGA negotiators a deal could be made if DVD payments were taken off the table and then reneged on that promise when the Guild complied. If I was on the negotiating committee, I'd be raising that DVD payment 1% a day from now until a deal is finally reached. You can't allow this kind of duplicity to go unpunished.

There's no way to end any labor dispute until a level of trust between the parties is achieved and these two men all but eliminated that possibility. They both need to be called to account.

You can reach Mr. Chernin at 310-369-1000 and Mr. Moonves at 323-575-2345. Don't let the nice lady on the switchboard deter you, the boys are somewhere in the building and you will be forwarded. Studio policy requires that all phone calls placed between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm be voice answered and logged, making the staff less
available to assist these two reprehensible CEOs in putting their plans for world domination into action.

10. SUPPORT INDEPENDENT PRODUCT ONLINE. Writers and other creatives are already offering new media forms of entertainment online and it's not hard to find. Just Google what whets your appetite and a thousand options will present themselves. It's just as easy to crack a beer and flop in front of your computer as it is using a couch and a television. And it's going to get a lot easier real soon. There are entire networks here that you've never heard of, original webisodes and alternate universes and graphic novels and real people you can interact with while being entertained.

There are opinions expressed here that are not diluted or spun to serve the self interests of mega-corporations as well as products and services that will never carry an "As seen on TV" sticker. It's a brave new world that isn't owned and controlled by six companies. A place where artists and audiences can engage without a grasping middleman and where the future can be shared equitably.

Sharing equitably is what this strike is about.

Thanks for doing whatever you can in helping us all get there

Amen, Mr. Henshaw!

And here’s a link to John August’s ABC’s of residuals.

And to the United Hollywood WGA strike blog.