This is the bit where I seem to contradict everything I've said for the last month.
Bill Cunningham -- who's done a far better job of covering alt-media production than I ever have -- links to this essay by smart guy Marc Andreessen about how Hollywood will evolve into a Silicon Valley-like indie-studio format where writers, actors, etc. are all equity partners in their own productions, which are financed by start-up capital, etc.
I absolutely agree. Which is why I proposed it about two years ago, or at least the beginnings of the system. That essay is actually just the theoretical framework of why a new model is possible, actually -- I can't find the damn execution post for the life of me. Should've frikkin' tagged ...
How does this square with my enthusiastic defense of the WGA strike, and insistence on residual payments? Particularly with my mocking of people who suggest that we just start our own studios?
Well, the issue is time and the word "just". As Andreessen notes, the system will head in this direction, and as someone who works in Hollywood while he works in Silicon Valley I'll argue that it'll go slower than he thinks, although probably faster than I believe. We already have indie movies, but not everyone out in viewer-land is going to be happy with talky-talk and horror flicks. They'd occasionally like some car crashes and exotic locations, please, not to mention actors they recognize. You're also in direct competition with the system you're trying to kill, who knows you're trying to kill it and also happens to control almost all mainstream distribution. Good luck. TV's no easier -- you can't partially finance a TV entertainment start-up. If you want to make TV shows, you need to finance an entire season. The pilot process is a monstrous waste of time and money, stunningly inefficient (an you say "amortize" kids? Knew ya could) and will make no sense in the Internet download model. Six to eight episodes at a time, costing about .5 to 1 million a pop, will be the base level of investment. That's with the sharpest producer on the planet, and a lot of people taking a flyer on their usual fees. Not even talking promotion, although that will change ... eventually. Not a ton of money in the grand scheme of things, but it's real money. Beyond the ken of all but the richest individuals, particularly when you build in the assumption that the first batch of these things, used as the sharp wedge on changing the business model and viewer/download habits, are almost guaranteed to fail pretty miserably. You can bring in outside money, sure -- how you keep venture capitalists from becoming essentially sharkier studio executives when it comes to creative input, that'll be a challenge.
Not only that, there is indeed a buyer/distribution system in place for software -- the entire corporate IT system -- which does not exist in entertainment outside the main studio/network distribution chains already in place. There's also the issue of the computer/television perception split still in place in America. That's changing, but it'll be a generational shift at best.
The answer is stochastic tinkering -- small evolutionary steps along the way. As I've noted, there was no studio involved in the pilot we shot in October (blogging on which will resume shortly). It was basically Dean Devlin and a bunch of very creative deals balanced in a small percentage by taking the usual license fee from TNT. If this works -- and Lord knows if it will -- then we've got a proof of concept that will choke an awful lot of people. All because Devlin has nuts the size of an (electric) SUV.
On the other hand, that's proof of concept on a pilot -- which is still part of a very flawed development process. The final product, if picked up in the normal pilot process, will still be broadcast on a cable network. There are a couple web shows, like Quarterlife which premieres on MySpace (hello, new distribution channel), which itself has been picked up for later broadcast by NBC. However, 36 eight-minute episodes do not a network-television viewer model replacement make. You'll note that Quarterlife is basically a salvaged pilot. There's also Sanctuary, which I'll be writing more on later, that was the most expensive direct-to-web program ever made. Its episodes are a direct pay-to-download system -- and all told add up to about two hours of entertainment. And like I said, this is the stuff on the bleeding edge. You'll see more come, and even faster, but unless a big player like Google gets involved, it'll all be on individual initiatives.
It may be worth diverting and answering an e-mail question about the difference between some terms Bill and I use -- open-source production and 4th generation media. One's a tactic, the other's a strategy. 4th Generation Media is based on the same idea as 4th Generation warfare -- that is, control of the traditional battlespace is no longer a priority.. Open-source warfare -- as discussed in John Robb's excellent book and blog -- is the new tactic by which you go about executing a 4th Generation warfare strategy.
For example, Robb discusses how IED makers in Iraq are essentially unaffiliated shops. The bomb-builder's a specialist. So's the guy who places the bomb. Different insurgent groups would go to the same bomb-maker for their IED's. Open-source is also a function of the lowered price of entry into the market. In order to wage war against a super-power now, you don't need a billion-dollar army in order to take on their army head-to-head, because you're not going after control of that army's traditional battlespace. You need a white panel van and some unguarded oil pipeline. Or, as was mentioned in Buda's Wagon -- the car bomb is commonly known as "the poor man's air force."
This is particularly effective when your goal is not to confront an enemy or capture territory, but to cost the enemy more than he can morally or economically bear in the long run. That is, you're fighting in a different battlespace, moral or economic.
Ciiiircling back around, 4th Generation Media means that you're no longer trying to compete on the network's battlespace -- millions of viewers taken from other shows, in a zero sum game at every time slot, translating into ad revenue. You're trying to get money either directly from an advertiser -- a variation of the current streaming model -- or through direct audience payment for either episodic download or maybe a subscription-base streaming model with a password structure. *
The problem is, those battlespaces are very poorly developed, both in infrastructure terms -- shitty broadband penetration -- and perceptual terms. We need to train audiences to access this media in unfamiliar ways, and the media needs to be of a competitive quality to the broadcast model.
This is where open-source production comes in. $3-K HD cameras, micro-rigs that are orders of magnitude cheaper than usual dolly rigs, and computer editing packages have moved within striking distance of broadcast level quality -- a very recent development. Some of the new prosumer level cameras shoot at 24p, but they're still be road-tested by interested parties. Some very smart folks I know have a theory that you can put together a complete film gear kit -- and I mean, make a TV show and 99% of the viewers will never see the difference -- for about $15k. We'll see. That ain't talking post. Never mind sets and locations. But for sheer "get images on disk", it sounds about right. Controlling the production costs in this way will allow more aggressive experiments in bringing product to the new battlespace. The lower profits of entry level material in the new distribution channels will be matched by radically lowered production costs. (What this means for the TYPE of material we should be producing in these early experiments is a different conversation.)
In other words, prosumer 24p and Final Cut are the car bombs of television.
As achingly near as a new paradigm sounds, a.) it's still at least a decade away from being fully realized and b.) the established studios already have a good jump on transitioning viewer share from regular media to broadband, not to mention craploads of advertising dollars to create awareness that the start-ups won't have and corporate structures to absorb the losses involved in developing fire-hoses of entertainment with which to flood viewers' brain-space. So even as the little warm-blooded indie mammals will eventually skitter in the moist undergrowth of the internet-delivery system, the dinosaurs will still have a few good decades left in them -- at least. Therefore it's important to make sure the dinosaurs honor their obligations to pay the creators of material as it's delivered in the mew medium, even as those creators learn the ropes to produce and distribute their own material. The studios were kind of hoping we'd give them the pass, so they could eke out a few extra billion even as they try to grab the good early brain-space on the Web for entertainment distribution. This disagreement led to the Strike, which I hope will be settled very soon.
On a more personal note, this discussion skirts the edge of announcing the death of the pure screenwriter. And that, frankly, sucks. Although I'm lucky and geeky enough to want to play in the sandbox of indie media production, there are plenty of writers who are just really good goddam writers. They don't necessarily have the desire or temperment to become media/business experts. It's already a goddam miracle that out of competition with tens of thousands of other writers that they've managed to find a gig that will intermittently pay their rent. There should be a place for good writers while we weirdos are mucking about in the gears of the system. They write -- that's all. And that's enough.
Any asshole who asks why the all writers don't just start their own studio system should consider this: What would your life be like if, in order to keep your current job, you suddenly had to learn to do the of every person in the company above you, and a couple of your co-worker's jobs, just to stay employed. Given the choice of that radical new existence or just, say, making a bit of noise to make sure they're fairly compensated for their work, I'd bet most people would go for the bit of noise.
In the end we're re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You can't stop the nature of the Internet from warping the distribution system of the future. The current production model will require radical restructuring for talent, advertisers, and production entities alike. It's going to be a bloodbath. But that sort of radical change is inherently resisted by human nature itself. It'll only be accomplished by existing power bases slowly evolving to accept them, not wholesale restructuring. Because of that time lag, we must make sure we get paid in the evolving structure, not just the end-state structure. There's no moral sin in trying to buffer the transition period for writers who will be put in harder and harder positions in order to keep working. The fact that this buffer happens to coincide with the obligations of the corporations who use our work is a nice coincidence.
Why am I so sure thing will plod along a little slower than most geeks predict? Let me send you off with another story, names dropped as usual. A while ago, a very smart producer and I cooked up a way to, basically, finance a pilot for zero cost. It was a very particular type of show, with very particular economic possibilities on DVD ... but it could be done, with product placement, pre-sales, etc. To tell you the truth, it made perfect sense to do 13 of the goddam things, it was as sure a bet as you'll find in Hollywood that we'd at least break even. And if I just managed to break even on a show I loved, then I consider that a big damn win.
So, very excited, the producer and I meet with a Very Important Studio Human. We lay out the model. The Studio Human nods. He says "That would absolutely work."
"But it would put everybody in this building ..." He then pointed out his window to an adjacent office structure, "... and everybody in that building out of a job."
He leaned forward, sincere.
"Why would I do that?"
I honestly didn't have an answer for him.
*(DVD's the buffer zone now, the fat pipe that's keeping us all alive while the new pipe is being built. Going straight to DVD with nontraditional D2DVD forms is a similar model, but again, that's another post.)