With Strike Looming, Hollywood Writers Turn Attention to Web

Screenplay Scribes Ready to Create Content for Veoh, Other Sites

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LOS ANGELES -- Anyone who hoped that some time apart would cool down the escalating rhetoric between Hollywood's screenwriters and producers and decrease the chance of a writers' strike should have been disheartened by the studios' end-of-day invective yesterday.
Jeffrey Katzenberg
Jeffrey Katzenberg: Says Gap has never been wider in talks between writers and producers.

"They are not serious about negotiating a new contract," sniffed Nick Counter, the chief negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, "and have a total disregard for the true state of the industry and its fundamental economics."


Only a day before Mr. Counter's fusillade, DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg observed more coolly, "I don't think I've ever seen a wider gap in the 'bid' and the 'ask' on where we are today."

What happens next?
With each side believing the other is totally irrational when it comes to dividing the spoils of work distributed online, the question of whether there will be a writers strike has become immaterial; instead, the question is fast becoming, "What will happen during the writers' strike?"

Talk to any number of writers, and the answer appears to be "Nothing that's ever happened before."

For one thing, the subprime mortgage crisis has became a full-blown credit crisis, with significant implications not only for raconteurs with jumbo mortgages, but also for the other myriad folks whose livelihoods as electricians and dry cleaners and the like all depend on Hollywood firing on all cylinders.

What will happen when some 100,000 people all tap their home equity lines of credit simultaneously? Nothing good, experts say.

"A prolonged work stoppage will result in significant economic pain," says Mordechai Fishman, a principal in JFS Financial, the Los Angeles wealth-management firm that advises numerous Hollywood screenwriters, producers and talent agents. "And anyone counting on inflated home equity to tide them over will probably find out that there's far less credit available, and what's available will be considerably harder to get."

Things are different
But then again, things are also markedly different this go-round because, until now, writers have never had the chance to continue to distribute their work online and get paid for it.

"Writers want to write," said Brian Russo, the screenwriter of this year's Hillary Swank horror film, 'The Reaping.' Mr. Russo said he is also in negotiations with several broadband companies to put his own horror webisodes online.

"They're not going to stay home and learn to crochet or watch 'Murder She Wrote.' This is the best chance to have creative control, and the question writers are asking is, 'Do I just create the whole damn thing myself, or split the revenue with a company like Veoh or Revver?'"

The stats suggest that both models are attractive to writers. Launched in April by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay with funding from Sequoia Capital, comedy video site FunnyorDie.com already boasts an audience of 1.9 million unique users, making it one of the hottest sites on the web. By comparison, shared video site Veoh has seen its audience of 2.5 million grow more than 250% when compared with last year.

(Perhaps sensing the shifting ground, Creative Artists Agency, the Hollywood talent agency that represents Messrs. Ferrell and McKay, also has a stake in FunnyorDie.)
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's FunnyorDie.com is a content site that might receive a lot of attention from possibly out-of-work Hollywood writers.
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's FunnyorDie.com is a content site that might receive a lot of attention from possibly out-of-work Hollywood writers.

"Traditional media is fighting new versions of the same old battles," said Brent Weinstein, formerly an agent at United Talent Agency and the founder of the recently launched 60Frames Entertainment, a new venture dedicated to handling the financing, ad sales and syndication of professionally produced online content.

Exploring all opportunities
"It's a fight I am glad to be watching from the sidelines," Mr. Weinstein said. He added, "I don't want to sound like a profiteer, but regardless of what happens I still have the opportunity to explore deals. If there's a work stoppage, people will look wherever they can to pay the bills."

United Talent Agency retains a stake in the Mr. Weinstein's web entertainment venture, and to avoid union headaches it is careful to call 60Frames a "financing entity" and not a production company.

While UTA clients such as the Coen brothers and Johnnie Depp may not need the cash from a 60Frames project to keep a roof over their heads, there are plenty of writer-directors who might.

Roger Grossman, for example, is a fledgling filmmaker who left a career as VP-mobile entertainment at Mobile Media Group to become a director. His new indie film, "What We Do Is Secret," is based on the Thorn Kief Hillsbery novel about the life of Darby Crash, lead singer of the iconic punk rock band the Germs. The movie just had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and may find distribution at the American Film Market later this year.

In the meantime, though, Mr. Grossman is eagerly talking with broadband companies about providing to them bundles of original three-minute clips, payment for which can run between $10,000 and $30,000.

"Compared with selling an indie movie, it's outrageously profitable," he said, "and your clips can get optioned and developed into other properties."

Learning to embrace the web
Meanwhile, even as writers embrace the web, they can thank the studios for helping them learn how to do so.

Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz grabbed headlines this week for undertaking an ambitious new-media project that's actually old media: Onetime ABC pilot "Quarterlife" is theirs again, and they'll distribute it via MySpace, as well as create their own social-networking site.

Also this week, Lionsgate announced that writer-director J.T. Petty will prime the pump for his forthcoming suspense Western "The Burrowers" with seven three- to five-minute webisodes that will premiere on the horror website and on-demand service FearNet -- a joint venture of Sony, Comcast and Rogers, Canada's largest cable company.

"I don't think most people will look at it as promotion," Mr. Petty said in an interview with Advertising Age. He added: "Most of the working writers, even those who are making a good living at it, are working in other mediums, like online. It's a totally valid medium, and, anyway, when you do a comic book or a something online, you keep the rights, and it keeps them [the studios] from screwing with you."

Ironically, while Mr. Petty and writers of his generation see online as a golden opportunity, his elders at the Writer's Guild of America that are negotiating his contract probably won't hear it knocking.

A member of the WGA's negotiating committee, Marc Norman, shared the best screenplay Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love" with Tom Stoppard in 1998. Now 66, he admitted that the "people I hang with, I don't think they'll look for online work."

What will the older generation of writers do?

"The writers will drive cabs, tap their home equity; they'll do what they need to do," Mr. Norman said. "Some may fall out."
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