That was underlined this week at a briefing at the Alliance of Motion Picture Association and Television Producers (the organization that negotiates for the studios with the creative guilds), when some top industry executives told the New York Times they were considering putting an end to residuals to writers, directors and actors. (Residuals are the fees received by talent when their work is re-used after the initial showing. Often they represent a substantial portion of the artist’s income.)
This would be a sea change in the way Hollywood has been doing business. Residuals were instituted decades ago to redress a painfully obvious grievance: the studios never gave an honest accounting of their profits. And, unless your name was Cruise or Spielberg, you never saw dime one from the writing and/or directing of a hit movie.
(A personal note: In 1981 I wrote a Richard Pryor film called Bustin’ Loose. I wasn’t particularly proud of the final product but audiences loved it. It was the number one hit for several weeks. A year or so later I read an interview with then Universal Studios chief Sid Sheinberg in the NYT. Sid was bemoaning what a bad year ’81 had been for Universal. Only their two big hits – The Four Seasons and Bustin’ Loose – saved the studio. I had five percent of the net of that movie. Eureka, I thought. I’m going to be rich! I quickly called my attorney. He burst out laughing. But… but… I said… did you see the New York Times? So what, he replied, as if I were, yes, a schmuck with an Underwood? That same day… yes, that same day…. I received my accounting statement showing the movie twelve million dollars in the red.)
The need for residuals then is obvious. So what’s going on here? Normally I would say this is a red flag being waved as a negotiating ploy by the producers in advance of their contract talks with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which begin on Monday. But I suspect something more is afoot.
The studios are scared out of their knickers by New Media. The WGA has been making noises about organizing online writers – something I think may not be possible considering the anarchy of the Internet – but whatever the result we are at the beginning of a major realignment of the entertainment industry. This is being reflected in this new round of WGA negotiations.
Ten years from now the film and television industry as we currently know it will probably not be recognizable. A whole new way of doing business must be found.
Of course, as usual, those schmucks the writers are being picked on first. But I have a suggestion. Why not follow true capitalist principles that are normally found in other more healthy businesses and cut back on the truly unproductive areas? I’m talking about the studio production executives – those well-coiffed factotums who fill the studio offices writing endless useless script notes and taking pointless meetings for which they are paid salaries commensurate to the former Shah of Iran. Cut back on them and you could save Hollywood and feed Africa simultaneously.
Roger L. Simon received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay of Enemies, A Love Story. His other screenplays include The Big Fix, Bustin’ Loose, Scenes from a Mall and (with Sheryl Longin) Prague Duet, which he also directed.