Hollywood 2.0: New Frontiers in New Media - Part 1

Everybody knows the major issue in the contract negotiations between the WGA (Writer's Guild of America) and the collective bargaining unit known as the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers) is jurisdiction over new media.  But what exactly does that mean?  In our continuing coverage of the strike, CBR News takes an in depth look at the what the writers want, and how writers are not only using the Internet to score points in the court of public opinion, but are also developing new business models to turn the Internet into a viable distribution platform for the entertainment industry.

The two major issues with regards to new media compensation are original Internet content and the online re-use of WGA-scripted material created for other mediums.  To date, original Internet content is primarily short-form material like webisodes or mobisodes.  Right now, original content for new media does not fall under the jurisdiction of the WGA, and as such, the compensation writers receive for creating this material and the residuals they receive for its re-use is slim to none.

The two primary avenues of content delivery on the Internet is streaming video and Electronic Sell-Through.  If you go to the official site for any of the major networks, you can watch video streams of entire episodes of their prime-time programming.  The studios claim the writers aren't entitled to compensation for this re-use of their work, because it's being used for quote unquote "promotional" purpose only.  That said, the networks do run ads during these streaming episodes, which you cannot skip, and writers don't see a penny of that ad revenue.  Electronic Sell-Through, on the other hand, is fully downloadable and re-watchable videos, be they original Internet content or projects produced for other media.

In 1985, at the advent of home video, the AMPTP justified a huge reduction in home video residuals by saying that it was an unproven business model.  Despite that, when the DVD market exploded and the money-making potential for home video was fully realized, the studios were none to eager to negotiate an increase in the residual formula.  Now, the AMPTP is singing the same tune with regards to the Internet, that there is no proven business model.  And while that may be true at the present time, there is little doubt that sooner rather than later, someone is going to successfully monetize Internet video, and all the creators are asking for is their fair share.

The AMPTP's refusal to negotiate an equitable deal re: new media has driven writers to the Internet in droves.  Blogs have become the battleground for this war of words between the Hollywood screen scribes and the studio moguls. United Hollywood, the unofficial blog of the WGA, has been a tireless source of strike related news since the strike began.  Strike videos, from amateurs and pros alike, have flooded YouTube.  One very visible initiative is "Speechless Without Writers," a series of strike PSAs produced in solidarity by members of all three above the line Hollywood unions, and CBR News sat down with "Speechless" team members Alan Sereboff and Jill Kushner to talk in depth about the project.

Like many of the strike related new media ventures, the seeds of "Speechless Without Writers" were sown on the picket line.  Writers Alan Sereboff and George Hickenlooper ("Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse") saw the sheer volume of creative talent represented on the picket lines and realized that they had an opportunity to harness all of that talent to help get the WGA's message out to the world.  "George and I came up with a concept of shooting some videos to demonstrate SAG solidarity with the writers," Sereboff said.  "I ran into Justine Bateman the next day on the line, and Justine helped us out by getting us some talent, and it just sort of spread."

"Speechless Without Writers" grew by leaps and bounds, and Hickenlooper and Sereboff quickly realized that it was going to be more than a two-person venture.  This is where Jill Kushner (whose work on "Ellen" has earned her two Emmy Awards) came in.  "George and Alan started with a wish list of high-profile SAG talent to reach out to, to see who'd be interested, and in a matter of hours, there no longer needed to be a wish list," Kushner said.  "These people were coming to them and wanting to just jump on, and it became this big animal."

The writer/actress/stand-up comedian may have come on board as a production manager, but Hickenlooper and Sereboff wasted no time in utilizing Kushner's skills as a writer.  "We all end up doing everything," Kushner admitted.  "Whether it be writing a script or whether it be booking actors or whether it be sitting with our editor, or bouncing light, or being a PA, we all do it."  Even front man and renowned documentary filmmaker George Hickenlooper doubles as a PA on the "Speechless Without Writers" set.  "And he's loving it," Kushner said.  "He was saying it feels like he's just back in film school."

Sereboff and Kushner share credit for the "Speechless" spots with George Hickenlooper, Justine Bateman, Chic Eglee, Anthony Marinelli, Pamela Lopez, and the rest of the cast and crew members who volunteer their time to help get the WGA's message out to the people.  The recent "Speechless" installment featuring Zach Braff amassed 30,000 views on YouTube in only three days.  View this and more at http://speechlesswithoutwriters.com/.

And as much as the "Speechless" team enjoys making these PSAs, they'd be thrilled if they never had to make another one.  "If the strike ended tomorrow, it would be the greatest thing in the world," Sereboff said.  "But I can tell you that we're not going to stop, nor is the writer's guild and the writer's guild members, we're really committed on this.  We know the Internet's the future, we know that this is a fight for the next 30 or 40 years regarding fair treatment of writers, and we're not going to stop."

The "Speechless Without Writers" video spots are PSAs, first and foremost, but the "Speechless" team is considering monetizing their efforts, to help raise money for the Strike Fund.  "We've been talking recently about putting up a PayPal link, which would allow people to contribute if they wanted," Sereboff said.  Most of the participants have autographed a "Speechless" pad, and Sereboff said that, too, would be auctioned off to benefit the Strike Fund and people affected by the strike.


As the strike drags on, the striking writers are increasingly exploring the possibility of using the Internet not only as a soapbox, but also as a distribution platform to circumvent the studio system entirely.  To explain the sudden explosion of web-based entertainment ventures, Alan Sereboff invoked Chris McQuarrie's "The Usual Suspects": "You don't put guys like that in a room together.  Who knows what can happen?"  The profession of writing is by and large a solitary one, but the strike has brought Hollywood's best and brightest scribes together to fight for a common goal, and the hours spent together on the picket lines has given rise to many and varied new ventures in new media.

One such initiative is Strike TV, the brainchild of WGA members Peter Hyoguchi (writer/director of "First, Last and Deposit") and Jim Cooper.   Strike TV held their first official seminar on Wednesday, January 9th, at the WGA theater, where the Strike TV team brainstormed with not just writers but a theater full of professionals from other walks of the industry, actors, directors and crew.  In his introduction to the assembled industry pros, Strike TV's Ian Deitchman laid out the mission statement for Strike TV: "First and foremost, Strike TV is an Internet fundraiser, that United Hollywood is going to be hosting on their site," Deitchman said, the proceeds of which go to the Industry Support Fund, which compensates below the line crew members who have lost their jobs on account of the strike.  The big incentive for writers is that creators will retain full ownership of the properties they create for Strike TV.  "So if your piece does great on the Internet, and it gets a lot of hits, it's really popular, by all means take it and try to sell it up the line," Deitchman said.

It is not the intention of the Strike TV team to develop a new business model for the Internet themselves.  They see themselves, rather, as enabling the roomful of new media pioneers to blaze a trail in that direction.  "If this all comes together the way we know it can, it's really going to demonstrate that writers, under union contracts, can bring high-quality, original entertainment to the Internet, monetize it and own it, and do it all by ourselves," Deitchman said.  "Content is king."

Deitchman then ceded the microphone to Peter Hyoguchi.  The idea for Strike TV stemmed from picket line conversations between Hyoguchi and Jim Cooper.  Cooper's rousing "Why We Fight" video is featured on United Hollywood's website, and the unassuming strike video amassed half a million views almost overnight.  "If only I'd put an ad on that thing," Cooper had lamented aloud, only half jokingly.  But Hyoguchi quickly realized that his colleague might be onto something, and Strike TV was born.

Hyoguchi pointed out that over the past few years, the two largest obstacles to writers getting their work in front of an audience, namely prohibitively expensive production and distribution costs, have all but disappeared, thanks to affordable HD production and post-production technology and the global, open distribution platform that is the Internet.

Hyoguchi characterized "Strike TV" as a work in progress, and the seminar as a working meeting.  "We had already done sort of our own cherry picking of certain people that we wanted involved, and we approached them first," Hyoguchi told CBR News.  "Since we had so much positive responses and so many people saying, yes, they would make films, we decided to open it up to everybody."  Hyoguchi said that a number of A-list writers and filmmakers will be contributing to Strike TV, but he was not at liberty to reveal their names just yet.  Any and all WGA members were eligible to submit proposals for Strike TV projects up until the deadline of February 15th.

"During that meeting we had a tremendous amount of people volunteering their services," Hyoguchi said.  "Camera people, and post production people, and composers, and actors, effects people."  And Hyoguchi is seeing to it that Strike TV filmmakers have access to this stable of volunteer crew.  "We're creating a database that will be a private secured area for people in the business to volunteer and connect with each other.  It's going to be kind of like Craig's List."

For his part, Hyoguchi and his writing partner are taking a comic book they were in the process of developing and adapting it to an animated film for Strike TV.  The goal is to produce an animated series not unlike the comic books produced in conjunction with "I Am Legend," and Hyoguchi hopes that he will find animators in the Strike TV network who can help bring his script for "Subturania" from the page to the web page.

"It's taken a while for people in Hollywood to understand that with these new tools, movies that cost nothing can actually compete with movies that cost millions of dollars," Hyoguchi said.  As a case in point, Hyoguchi's film "First, Last and Deposit," was shot on mini DV for a shoestring budget, and it managed to beat out multi-million dollar, 35 mm films for the top prize at several major film festivals in 2000.  "It's going to take some time, but hopefully this is going to be a wakeup call not only for low budget filmmaking in Hollywood but also low budget distribution."


In Internet circles, "Web 2.0" refers to the second generation of web-based communities, things like social networking sites, wikis and blogs, where the content is generated primarily by the users themselves.  WGA Board Member Aaron Mendelsohn (writer and co-creator of "Air Bud") likened this evolution of Internet communities to the brave new world of new media, and dubbed the phenomenon "Hollywood 2.0." 

Mendelsohn was one of five experts who participated in a panel discussion on monetizing the Internet as part of that first Strike TV seminar.  Mendelsohn was joined on stage by Kent Nichols of "Ask a Ninja" fame, "Law and Order" writer and Internet entrepreneur Tom Smuts, President of Nami Media Ken Hayes, and Icebox.com co-founder Rob LaZebnik.

Mendelsohn, a member of the WGA negotiating committee, quickly became frustrated by the intractability of the AMPTP during the '07 contract negotiations, and like many of his colleagues, came to the realization that there is little stopping enterprising writers from exploring the fertile ground of the Internet outside the auspices of the studio system.  At the same time, Mendelsohn was contacted by his former business partner Brad Burkhart.  Burkhart, Mendelsohn learned, had recently crossed paths with noted Internet strategist Henry Poole.  Poole, who has already worked his magic for organizations such as WITNESS and Amnesty International, expressed an interest in spearheading a similar initiative for the entertainment industry.  "That led to a meeting of a bunch of top film and TV writers on a rainy Thursday night a couple of months ago," Mendelsohn said.  "Which led to a meeting in San Francisco a couple of weeks later, with some top tech, Internet gurus."  The goal was a marriage between Silicon Valley and Hollywood scribes that would cut out the middle man of the studio system and allow the writers to bring quality entertainment directly to their viewing public.  "The studios have had a stranglehold on distribution for 100 years, but the Internet has leveled the playing field," Mendelsohn said.

Born out of this partnership between Mendelsohn, Poole and Burkhart was Virtual Artists, a new kind of studio that's both a development company and an Internet distribution platform.  And rather than limit their talent pool to WGA members alone, Mendelsohn told the crowd: "In the spirit of free and open source software, and in the spirit of the model of freedom that the Internet invites, we're going to make our development fund available to all great storytellers, and we are going to make our distribution platform that we're going to be building available to all great content that we are going to handpick and put on the Internet."  Mendelsohn was not able to divulge the names of the 15 top film and TV writers who have already joined forces with the burgeoning Virtual Artists, but he did go so far as to say that the Emmy and Academy Award Winning group's work had collectively made 15 billion dollars in grosses.

While Mendelsohn and Burkhart are in the process of raising venture capital to get the company off the ground, their Silicon Valley partners will be busy developing the next generation of Internet content delivery systems.  And Mendelsohn is no stranger to raising money: Mendelsohn co-created the "Air Bud" franchise with his writing partner, Paul Tamasy, but the first film in what would become a hundred million dollar franchise for Disney was actually produced outside the American studio system.  "'Air Bud' was rejected by all the studios, was made by a Canadian Company that had its own money, and was a negative pickup at Disney," Mendelsohn said.  "What was frustrating to me was that my partner and I wrote the first movie, we really invented the franchise, and have just been tossed pennies for our efforts." 

It was such Hollywood experiences that inspired Mendelsohn to explore the new frontiers of New Media. And as far as Virtual Artists goes, "the writers of the content will own a much larger share of the content they create, and we will have the means to distribute the content directly to our audience and fans over the Internet." 


Tomorrow we countinue our look at the issues surrounding new media and the strike, including how to monetize the Internet, the first wave of new media pioneers and what the future holds for writers in the digital age.

Now discuss this story in CBR's TV/Film forum.

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