The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

February 2000

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 18 January 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

Right about now, all those Y2K mugs, T-shirts and champagne flutes are making their way to the storage boxes that will turn into the fare for upcoming weekend garage sales. The new millennium is old news already. A million resolutions and to-do lists have been generated, and most of them have probably already been forgotten. Now what?

Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get down to business with some of the issues facing screenwriters, and the Guild, in this new millennium of New Media. We’re pulling out our own list — to help you take a look at some of the facts, and questions, we face for the long-term future of both the Writers Guild and professional screenwriters. Consider these issues when you’re gearing up for your next contract negotiation –- but try to think beyond 3-year frameworks, and think about 5, 10, and 15 years from now…

  • Fact: Videogame sales generate more revenue at the retail level than movies generate at the box office.
    This is not a one-time blip on the radar. It’s reality. Videogames are now one of the primary forms of narrative entertainment for the mass audience. We’re not talking kid stuff here: half the Sony Playstation audience is over 21.It’s snobbishness for writers to complain that “story” in these games is primitive or non-existent. The fact is, many of these games contain storylines vastly more complicated than your average summertime Hollywood action film. Typical game scripts run hundreds of pages. And the increasing crossover from game to film/TV and back is inevitable.

    In the early and mid ’90s, the Writers Guild achieved only mixed results in a valiant effort to burrow into the computer game industry. The reasons behind this are too varied to review in this column. But meanwhile, scripts *are* being written, and videogames are gradually embracing richer story narratives (while still trying to figure out the appropriate visual approach and interactive grammar). Is this a market forever lost, or one the Guild may try again to build new bridges to?

  • Fact: The Web is not much of an entertainment delivery medium now, but it will be — very soon.
    Right now, the Guild refuses to cover Web-based employment for screenwriters, unless moving images are involved. But is this shortsighted?Websites that are delivering “static” content now will soon be delivering broadband content. The line between website and network is going to quickly blur (see the Discovery Channel and Oxygen Media for two obvious examples of this already occurring).

    Will it be too late to turn these websites and new media enterprises into signatories? Is this another market potentially lost?

  • Fact: Writers are becoming employers and entrepreneurs.
    We know this on the high-end, with powerful television writer-producers sharing network and syndication profits, and hiring other screenwriters to write shows. We may be less aware that this is happening with writers starting up New Media companies.The Writers Guild was built on the concept of the writer-for-hire: workers who drive onto a lot each day and work for a large company. But those days are long gone for most screenwriters.

    In today’s landscape, what should the Guild be to writers who are more purely entrepreneurial? And how are dues and pension and health contributions structured when the payment framework is so completely different from the traditional screenplay-fees-and-residuals?

  • Fact: Entertainment content is getting created and re-purposed in new ways.
    Video clips are becoming increasingly available on the Web; complete content is not far behind. You can already do a search on any CNN video news feed and replay it. How long before it’s “The Sopranos” or a WGA-covered documentary? (Actually, it’s already here: head to icravetv and have a Canadian area code handy. Wanna watch a Fox, ABC or other network show on your computer? You can.) If you rent a movie over the web, and it’s delivered directly to your computer, or your VCR, is the Guild prepared to make sure you get your residuals?Characters created for TV and film show up in new narratives and in different formats on the Web. Should writers be compensated for these re-uses? Should TV staff writers contributing to the show’s website, or a film writer contributing to a movie site, have their services covered by the Guild? How do you structure contributions? Is there such a thing as residuals or royalties on these endeavors?

    Simultaneously, shows and characters are being developed on the Web first — then migrated to television or film. Who is the show’s creator then? Or, do the rights to character and content creation get lost (thus reducing the strength of a credit, compensation in sequels, etc.)?

  • Fact: The number of screenwriters writing for traditional networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) has decreased substantially over the years. A great deal of production has fled Hollywood, and the freelance writer has been increasingly marginalized as well.
    How much should the Guild actively work to open up new markets in either traditional or new media in the years ahead? And how much are writers willing to risk to achieve improvements or new protections in these markets?
  • These are some of the issues this column has been discussing in the past several years and will continue to examine in the coming one. We have made this clarion call on several occasions, and we believe that it’s one worth repeating again: this is not your father’s Entertainment Industry. So, you’ve gotta wonder, is it still your father’s WGA?

    Written by tborst

    January 18, 2000 at 12:30 am

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