Over this weekend, Screenwriting Expo 5 continues at the Mariott at the Airport on Century Boulevard. I attended WGA(w) President Patrick Verrone's talk in the Imperial Room Thursday morning. Mr. Verrone's speech was funny and informative (and much of what what follows is paraphrase, since I'm a lousy stenographer)...
He opened with a comedic spiel about "making money in real estate with other people's money," then moved on to writers' issues and concerns, like how to break into the movie and television industry, where that industry is now, and where it's likely to go. He cited screenwriter/novelist William Goldman's well-known quote about the Hollywood power-structure: "Nobody knows anything," and then quoted Danny Rubin (author of Groundhog Day) in regards to Hollywood's mind set:
"They tell you that nobody knows anything, then say to write what you know..."
And Mr. Verrone noted how they tell you that the hard part is selling the first script, then the second script, then the third script ...
In other words, Patrick Verrone said, being a screenwriter -- or any kind of writer -- never gets overly easy, no matter who you are. One example he gave of this reality was Matt Groening, the very successful creator of "The Simpsons." Groening pitched "Futurama" to Fox-News Corp. as being "just like the Simpsons," whereupon Fox said "Great! We'll make it!" The new show ran for several seasons, but did not make Fox the billions that "The Simpsons" did. Fox News-Corp. said to Groening "you said this was just like "The Simpsons," and Mr. Groening replied: "Sure, it's new and original."
(While this story was being told, I kept thinking about how Mr. Groening was a cartoonist first, and screenwriter second ...)
Verrone noted how writers are driven to write, and how there are 70,000 spec scripts written by hopefuls every year, offered up to an industry that is now controlled by six conglomerates (down from 29 or 30 companies a couple of decades ago). He talked about how he started by writing a spec "Remington Steele" script while he worked as a lawyer in Florida, and soon after moved west to California. He told how he's written standup, comedy-variety, animation, sitcoms, even riddles on food wrappers.
The movie and television business, he said, is changing rapidly, and that material for all the "new media" out there (cell phones and internet web sites like NBC.com or YouTube) is desired by conglomerates just as cheaply as they can get it. For instance, Universal-NBC has asked the writers and show-runners of the tv series "Battlestar Galactica" to create two-minute mini-episodes of the show for the worldwide web. The writers have been asked to perform this work as part of their other duties (i.e., no additional compensation), and have resisted. And the WGA is now fighting this issue on their behalf before the National Labor Relations Board.
If it's up to the industry, Mr. Verrone said, content -- which industry leaders say is "king" -- will be created at cheaply as possible, and writers treated like peasants.
(True enough. But in this day and age, most everyone this side of a corporate Vice-President is treated like a serf.)
Verrone said that the WGA(w) considers "Every image and written word on a screen has a writer (behind it), and every writer deserves to be under a WGA contract." He observed as how conglomerates don't want to pay residuals to writers if they can avoid it, and how companies have made billions from animation, but the writers of animation haven't worked under a WGA contract and haven't gotten a dime of residuals.
("The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and other Fox prime-time shows are done under a WGA(w) contract with WGA-style residuals. Some other animated product has been done under Writers Guild contracts without WGA-style residuals. Other animated shows -- most features and TV series -- are done under IATSE/TAG contracts which channel residual payments for writers and board artists into the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan. And of course the Pixar and Blue Sky Animation Features -- "Ice Age," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" among others -- are made under no collective bargaining agreements. Writers and board artists who work on these films have instead received bonus payments when the pictures have performed well at the box office.)
All in all, Mr. Verrone covered a lot of ground in his twenty-five minute talk, and there was much of it with which I agreed. But whether content creators can get a larger piece of the corporate cash flow moving forward? Well, here's hoping.