Blog Post

Would a Strike Force Talent Online?

The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the guilds (Writers, Screen Actors and Directors) are at loggerheads, and the tension over talent costs could give rise to the first major entertainment industry strike in a generation. Online distribution gives talent an opportunity to seize the means of production — why rely on the networks and studios when you could capitalize on your fame online?

WGA ANTP Strike If you think that’s just my Marxist bias, think again — it’s also the opinion of entertainment lawyer Kevin Morris, expressed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column today [sub req]. Morris says,

Simply put: If you kick artists off a playground, don’t be surprised if they make sand castles at a new sandbox.

The Screen Actors Guild, for instance, is trying to raise dues in order to fund a new online department (currently, only one person, Pierre Debs, handles agreement negotiations for online productions). According to a conversation I had with SAG representatives in January, guild members are categorically prohibited from participating in any production that isn’t under an agreement — while I’m no entertainment lawyer, that would seem to specifically exclude producing non-union projects, online or off, during a strike.

Of course, it seems silly to think that Tom Cruise is going to produce a $150 million blockbuster for online distribution while on strike, but something like Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s project “Funny or Die” is certainly realistic — and could provide a model for how such content could be funded. Again, this is Morris talking:

The big winner in all of this will be Silicon Valley. A crippling strike, and even the stockpiling of movies and programming in anticipation of a strike followed by a slowdown, will greatly benefit both established and start-up net ventures offering content.

There is some precedent on a smaller scale — during a strike by employees of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, many correspondents began posting video, audio and text online via blogs.

6 Responses to “Would a Strike Force Talent Online?”

  1. Kevin, thanks so much for dropping by to continue the discussion! From what I understand, the reality of enforcing the SAG guidelines strictly is, as you point out, much more difficult than the official position they have to take publicly. They basically have to rely on members to police their own, and when no one is working, who’s going to tell on another member who goes it alone in order to put food on the table?

    And I hear your concerns, David. Will Ferrell is up against odds that are only slightly better than the creme de la creme of independent producers who are succeeding online at a much more modest scale. But then I think that everyone in the entertainment industry is going to have to come terms with a dose of modesty — the concentration of media channels necessitated by traditional one-way broadcast technology is no longer sustainable, and everyone is going to have to deal with eating smaller pieces of a larger pie.

    To make a business analogy, think of the difference between industrial agribusiness and supermarkets versus victory gardens and farmer’s markets. Where would you rather shop? And frankly, how would you prefer your food produced? I’m going with homegrown tomatoes and fruit from local family farms whenever I have the option, personally.

  2. David

    Jackson,

    Well, I don’t disagree in principal because it would be very interesting to see this unfold, but how would these guys make money? You don’t get much cash from putting your movies on Veoh. The whole Hollywood infrastructure is currently predicated upon selling to mass audiences, which don’t really exist on the web (at least not in the same way) …

    Going direct to the consumer is not an easy transition to make… If they were to create their own sites, who would pay for the bandwidth costs? Streaming video is very expensive and difficult to scale. Would they run ads? AdSense doesn’t provide much cash, and these guys might not have the ad agency relationships required to sell pre- and mid-roll ad inventory for decent CPMs, and the agency clients don’t want their ads on an unknown startup. A’ la carte downloads on iTunes might work… But how would they market their content? It’s not easy to get people to show up for anything on the web.

  3. Kevin Morris

    Regarding SAG’s position that its members can’t do anything during the strike: I sure hope they take the bait and put this position out there in response to my article. The idiotic, unnatural stance that artists can’t make a 2 minute video and post it is precisely the type of result we could get from this process if they all don’t wise up. (it is also not legally correct, in my view). SAG doesn’t have credibility to burn and they know it. Hell, I’d love to see them try to enforce that position. Rather like trying to stop the waves from rolling onto the beach, if you ask me.

  4. Duncan

    There is a long tradition of striking Newspaper Guild members putting out alternate, ‘strike’ papers in competition with their employers.
    In the case of the web, you don’t even have to find a printing press. The strike slogan may be, “Cameras, Action, Edit, Post.”