Writer’s Strike: The Studios Are Record Companies and It’s 1998

15 11 2007

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Dear film and television studios: This is your wakeup call. It’s 1998 and you’re the record companies. Your battle with writers over digital content is misguided. You’re trying to withhold a share of money that you haven’t even figured out how to collect. Instead, why not collaborate with your creative workforce on ways to profit from new technologies?

Songwriting is a dying art, thanks to the lack of foresight shown by record companies in the 1990’s. The only acts that make money are ones that write their own songs, gig constantly, and give their recordings away as loss leaders for tickets and merchandise. There’s a real danger that screen and television writing could go the same route.

Here’s why: In the near future, every piece of work the studios produce – or have ever produced – will be available online. If the studios don’t make it happen – efficiently and cheaply – P2Ps will. This is the inevitable result of demand, technology, and economics.

Every TV will be widescreen, hi-def, and networked to the Web. Do you think audiences will miss the shared experience of a theater? No problem. They’ll probably use chat rooms, vid cameras, and the Internet to watch content “with” your friends. Somebody will think of that and write the necessary software, if they haven’t already.

Railing against piracy won’t stop the future. Resistance is futile. The only way to avoid the sad fate of the music business is to do what it did not: Package the content better, make it fun and stimulating to access, and don’t charge too much for it.

Here’s the unspoken compact a studio, or for that matter any employer, has with the people it hires: You create the output. We figure out how to sell it at a profit. And we compensate you fairly for your work. Instead, as Jane Hamsher and others have observed, the studios are resisting the compensation piece of that unspoken compact.

My point is this: It’s equally important that studios recognize the other side of that compact, if only out of self-interest. Sure, industry execs have boasted about all the money they’re making – or expect to make – from digital content. That undercuts their primary argument in the strike. But where others see damning evidence, I see something different. I see industry leaders whistling past the graveyard.

Viacom is suing Google for $1 billion. Why? Viacom has no idea how to make a billion dollars from the Internet. As Muddy Waters once astutely observed, “you can’t lose what you never had.”

Making that billion won’t just take content. It will take new ways of packaging content – games, challenges, quizzes, communities – as well as new ways of paying for it (like subscription fees and microcharging technology). And it will take strategies for competing with all those people out there willing to put content on the Internet for free.

Studios are driving writers away from a carcass that’s already dead and stripped. They shouldn’t leave those writers on the picket line. They should cut a deal with them on a percentage basis, so that the writers’ incentives are aligned with their employers’. Then they should bring them inside and put their creativity to work – for a fair price – brainstorming with finance and tech types about new models for the future. The lights should burn all night long as they design the entertainment industry of the future – together.

If they don’t, none of this will matter in ten years anyway. Everybody – studios, agents, writers – will be in another line of business.

(image licensed via Creative Commons) 

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