I’ve seen a few posts about the writer’s strike in the past few days to the effect of "ha ha, those evil Hollywood studios and networks, this will be the last nail in their coffin." Maybe, maybe not. I generally sympathize with what the writers are demanding (of course they should get residuals on online sales of their work, jeez). I should mention that my support for unions in general isn’t as mindless as a lot of people who sit with me on the left-ish side of the political spectrum — my feelings about this are informed on the one hand by the fact that I grew up in L.A., I was a professional writer for a few years, and my dad worked as a IT manager for various Hollywood studios for much of his career. But on the other hand I am also an entrepreneur who bootstrapped his life starting from absolutely nothing. I’ve never bought in to traditional notions of job security (and I don’t think anybody should, when you get right down to it).
But this morning I found myself wondering: why aren’t Hollywood writers doing more to disintermediate the studios? It’s not like there are huge barriers to entry anymore. Why are they waiting around for a thin slice of residuals from poorly-conceived ventures instead of just going out and doing their own thing?
I mean, gossip blogger Perez Hilton is barely literate, yet he has a frighteningly large following and has an impressive business. He undoubtedly has some geeks to help him, but it’s probably not extensive and certainly not cost-prohibitive. What if real writers with chips on their shoulders and nothing to lose started pro blogging?
Why aren’t there more sites like FunnyOrDie.com or Improv Everywhere? It’s true that Will Ferrell kickstarted FunnyOrDie (and based on his participation in the business, someday we may discover that "The Landlord" is one of the most expensive short films ever produced). But couldn’t you imagine that someone like Mindy Kaling (who plays the crazy girlfriend on The Office and is an absolute scream) could get three or four friends together and do something online that would generate as much dough each year as the minimum price of a union-authored screenplay (which, we learned this week, is $106,000)?
I’m talking about this to a friend in L.A. who is a (non-union) writer. Her position is that the writer’s strike is about writers going after what’s theirs, which is totally fair and absolutely correct. But my point is, writers shouldn’t have to wait around for the studios to cough up; these discussions are always much simpler when you own the keys to the front gate and the check is in your hand. The writer’s strike (as I understand it) is about making sure that writers are fairly compensated for any one of a number of current and future online ventures that the studios want to engage in. But why wait around for these ventures to make money when writers could just go out and do it on their own? What value are the studios bringing to the online space? It’s not like they have this closed-off duopoly control of internet infrastructure the way they do with broadcast distribution. And it seems like if they were going to light the world on fire with compelling online service, they’d have done it years ago.