In the mid 90s, during a strike against The San Francisco Examiner, a bunch of staff writers and editors abandoned the newspaper to start up their own “web magazine.” Though it seemed like a weird idea at the time, the web mag eventually became Salon.com, now a site with more readers than most newspapers — including The Examiner itself.
As the WGA strike moves into its second week, it’s hard not to see a similar opportunity: What’s to stop WGA writers (especially those associated with well-known TV shows and movies) from doing a similar thing with YouTube? Create new, low-budget shorts à la Lonely Girl, then leverage them as spinoffs for new TV series/movies when the strike ends? Or perhaps even better, come up with a Net-driven revenue model and leave the dinosaur conglomerates of Hollywood behind?
Marc Andreessen and other Internet mavens have recently made that case, but I was curious to know what working screenwriters thought of the idea. So I put the question to my friend Howard A. Rodman, who’s in a unique position to answer: As a writer, he’s worked for filmmakers as varied as Steven Soderbergh, Errol Morris, and Tom Cruise; he’s the writer of the upcoming Savage Grace with Julianne Moore; and, most pertinently, is a board member with the WGA. What did he think of the “Go Internet” scenario? His characteristically urbane answer came with a clarion call:
“[O]ur Lonely Girl, our Dziga Vertov, our salon des refusees, has yet to emerge,” he acknowledged via email. “Give it time. More conjecturally, the Googles of this world, the Mark Cubans of this world, the Jeff Skolls of this world, might see an opportunity to work with world-class writers, without having to take 30 percent off the top as the studios’ distribution fee.”
“Increasingly,” he continued, “as the studios want you to come to them with a script, with stars, with attachments, with financing, the question becomes, what’s the value added? That question will be asked, more and more frequently, and more and more loudly. Big Media’s refusal to bargain and end this strike only assures that this question will continue to be asked — until some brave and imaginative soul answers it. Loudly.”
His advice to daring writers and Internet financiers who would rise to the challenge? “DIY!” he wrote. He pointed to a witty pro-WGA YouTube video that turns the corporate owners’ words against them. “Take a look at this: created with no more resources than you or I already have on our desktops.” (For myself, I’d point to someone like Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Felicia Day, who did that very thing months before the strike, creating a series that’s so popular online, the show’s fans willingly finance it with donations.)
For more resources, Howard pointed to Variety’s compilation of screenwriter blogs, and another at Huffington Post, where Howard is a contributor. For that matter, read more from Howard in a group interview I’m currently hosting on The Well, the legendary online community now owned (to tie this post up nicely) by Salon.com.
In 2001, Wagner James Au optioned his sci-fi action screenplay Future Tense to Canal Plus, a deal which pretty much summarizes the entirety of his screenwriting career. More recently, he’s GigaOM’s games editor and writes about Second Life for his blog New World Notes.