Apocalypse Now: Will New Media Destroy Hollywood?

Deep into the Writers' Strike of '07-'08 - four major studios have just canceled dozens of television writers' contracts for the next season - increased rumblings have been heard that the real issue at stake is not the representation of animation and reality show writers or even the vaunted problem of writers' online percentages. It is something far more apocalyptic - the future of Hollywood itself.

New media is poised to destroy the entertainment industry, as we know it.

People as diverse as television writer Rob Long and Internet guru Marc Andreesen are talking about the end of Hollywood - and they have a point. Several, in fact.

Netscape's Andreesen wrote extensively on his blog in November about how Hollywood - or more specifically movie and television writers, directors and producers - should emulate Silicon Valley and become entrepreneurial. And that this inevitable revolution has only been hastened by the writers' walkout.

Indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence that this is already happening. One group, 60Frames, has posted a few short episodes by what they describe as "established Hollywood talent." Another group, led by Aaron Mendelsohn, author of Air Bud, is shaking the venture capital tree to raise thirty million dollars for a company called Virtual Artists that is dedicated to "creating and delivering professionally made content directly to the end user, and who believe in the model of freedom and inclusiveness over the model of control that has been employed by the big media conglomerates for the past 100 years."

Fighting words. Andreesen thinks those same corporations and conglomerates blundered by encouraging a strike now - pushing the writers to become entrepreneurs and produce and distribute their own material.

It's not difficult to see why he thinks that, as a venture capital-oriented entertainment industry outsider, more able to take a global perspective than we long time film insiders. As one of those insiders, I don't see it as quite that simple, although, in the long run, I am in complete agreement with the Silicon Valley guru.

Things will change - and possibly faster than I expect.

But, despite what Andreesen says, that may not be such a great thing for the current generation of striking movie and television writers any more than it is for the studios. Many, if not most, of those writers are ill-prepared, temperamentally and/or economically, for this new world. (More of that in a moment, but it's worth noting now that immediately after making his big pronouncement, linked above, screenwriter Mendelsohn added that they'd better get their financing for their new company before the strike ends. "Otherwise we're all just too damn busy rowing the boat." Not exactly long-term thinking - or likely to encourage investment.)

But here's what most Industry people understand - strike or not...

When it comes to understanding the entertainment business, all roads lead, as they always have, to the means of distribution. You can have the greatest show on earth, but if no one sees it, you just lost your investment, not to mention your time and dreams of artistic glory. The studios have had a lock on those means of distribution since the original moguls stumbled off the train near a real estate development then called Hollywoodland back in the early Twentieth Century. And they have been nimble too in maintaining their lock, adjusting well to the advent of sound, color, television, video cassettes, DVDs and...

Well, wait. I was going to say the Internet, but that's not so simple. Controlling distribution on the Internet - where anyone can be a distributor, potentially anyway, for slightly more than the cost of a URL - is a wholly different matter.

And, with everybody and his sister having a home theater in his residence, the whole system is up for grabs. The cost of production too, as we all know, is plummeting. A thousand dollars buys you a camera with capabilities unavailable to the makers of Casablanca or even Star Wars. Editing is basically free on your Mac - all you need is the time and the software. (People have told me that our recent Pajamas Media high def interviews of the candidates appeared equal to the best network quality when connected via computer to their forty-inch home screens... and we produced these interviews for exponentially less than the cost to the networks.)

So, in the words of Sly Stone, in this Brave New Online World, "Everbody is a Star" (and a writer, director, producer, rock star, political pundit, talk show host, anchorman and maybe even a mogul). Again, potentially.

Steve Jobs understood that quickly, first with music and now with film and TV, and the studios are lumbering behind, attempting, as always, to lever their existing power and immense libraries to maintain control. They may be able to do it - again in the short run - but only with help.

Ironically, that help - the studio's best allies - may prove to come from those same creative guilds (writers, actors, directors) that they are supposedly battling. The studios and the guilds have been part of a symbiotic industrial system that has functioned - quite well, thank you - despite work stoppages and publicly proclaimed mutual hostility, for over half a century. They both should have a vested interest in preserving it.

I can see that clearly as a member of the Writers Guild, the Hollywood union generally regarded as most militant.

It is true the studios have routinely and famously screwed the writers - "schmucks with Underwoods" turned schmucks with Apples - financially and creatively from the get-go. Still, schmucks or not, working Hollywood writers (emphasis on the working) are highly paid privileged individuals compared to most of the world. Even minimum wages - which few make - are decidedly upper middle class and include rather good health insurance and a decent pension plan (which, like almost all similar plans, is contingent on the continued health of that industry and union).

I profit from both and can assure you I don't want to give them up. I would imagine few of my fellow guild members do either and I'm not surprised at Mendelsohn's warning of a short-lived window quoted a few paragraphs back. To put it bluntly, most of us have been sucking on the generous glass teat of Hollywood for the better part of our adult lives - and like all people who have had it easy and pleasurable, we are spoiled. Change will not be simple for us. We are habituated. Those of us who want to be entrepreneurs probably have done so already - or were at least thinking about going the Silicon Valley route long before the strike.

Now, to be clear, when I say "easy," I am speaking of the (relatively) "easy life." I am not saying television and movie writing is easy. It clearly is not. Very few people can do it. The Writers Guild has only 12,000 members not because it is a difficult union to get into - it isn't - but because few people are good enough to get hired by a signatory company, the minimum requirement for membership. I can attest to this. Years ago, when I wrote for Richard Pryor, I would occasionally dip into one of the literally thousands of unsolicited scripts pouring into his office. Not a single one was worth reading past page five. Years later, I taught graduate screenwriting at the American Film Institute, said to be one of our better film schools and certainly one of the most competitive in admissions, and hardly any of my students were able to succeed as professional writers. Much of this may stem from my limited teaching skills, but at least some of it is the plain difficulty of writing for the screen.

The studios know this and that is part of the reason why the Writers Guild has been attractive to them over the years. They have all - or most - of us in one place, working for them. As I said, a symbiotic system. This also may account, in a subliminal way, for the extraordinarily uniform political view in Hollywood. Everyone knows they are one of a lucky few along on a good thing. They don't want to rock the boat. Again, not an entrepreneurial mentality.

As a Silicon Valley guy, Andreesen probably doesn't see, or chooses to ignore, this. But from the inside it is obvious that senior studio executives are better business people than most writers and other creative types. That may not have not have been true during the Elizabethan Era when the likes of Burbage and Shakespeare evidently had more control of the means of production, but it certainly is now.

So I am not as convinced as Andreesen that the studios and their multi-national handlers like General Electric have made such a big mistake by encouraging the current strike. Indeed, some of them may have known precisely what they were doing. They recognize, as we all do, the changing entertainment landscape and the myriad and growing possibilities confronting the already busy consumer - reality shows, computer games, social networking, blogs, etc., etc. Bruce Springsteen's "fifty-seven channels and nothin' on" has morphed to a thousand and is about to morph to ten thousand and more. The corporations especially may choose to put their investment other places than the expensive production of live action television and films. They may end up essentially abandoning the playing field to new media (GE, after all, makes vastly more money from light bulbs than it does from NBC.)

This may be good for diversity of political opinion and for bypassing the stranglehold of mainstream media in news, but it is less clear the advent of new media is a good thing for the arts. Apple's Garage Band has not proven a bonanza to music creatively and an entrepreneurial Silicon Valley approach may be even less likely to prove a boon to the art of film, especially in that area of live action. There is little likelihood that new media is going to produce a Lawrence of Arabia or a The Godfather any time soon. Even with plummeting technical costs, productions of this sort take a huge upfront investment in talent and personnel that would make little sense to Industry outsiders. Who could blame them for not taking that risk? The economic viability of online distribution of new films has not nearly been demonstrated. It hasn't even been demonstrated for self-published books.

Of course, I am being sentimental here. I grew up on, and love, live action films. Animation - something that can be done by one person on a home computer - lends itself much better to the entrepreneurial model. This capability will only grow with the technology. Soon enough writer-director-animators will be creating completely viable human images on their PCs. They will be able to tell stories about people that look just like real human beings, fully invent and illustrate their own heroes and antiheroes. The era of the movie star will be over - a bonus to those of us who have labored under their whims for years. The movie stars of the future will be entirely the creation of the filmmakers who will own the copyrights, just as they do in Europe under "droit d'auteur."

They will tell whatever stories please them and not have to answer to the moguls. And those stories could have a diversity the current stultified system rejects. Who knows? You might even find one or two in support of the USA.

Roger L. Simon is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, novelist and blogger, and the CEO of Pajamas Media.