NEW YORK - Anita Ondine, Mo Koyfman, and Mark Lukasiewcz rallied to discuss the economics of digital media as a kickoff to the WGAE's new digital media education program. The message? Pretty simple. It's time for writers in the guild to get their hustle on and online.
With ubiquitous connectivity, the result of broadband penetration and expansion of mobile platforms, consumers now count web video series, internet radio, podcasts, twitter, blogs, tumblogs, multiplayer gaming, and more, as additions to previously limited traditional choices of TV, radio, and feature films.
The integration of social interactions by these new media forms and the personal choice of distribution channel, model, and time of day, have required a rapid reinvention of an industry previously caught off guard by cable television nearly overnight. Even more complicated is that what's true today, what's available today, who is using it today, will likely not be true three months from now.
With the recent launch of HBO's online web channel, Hulu's evolving free-to-pay model, companies like Next New Networks, individuals like you and me with our LOL kittens, puppies, and kids, Tim Kress-Spatz, creator of popular beer drinking show Tap That and the advent of many others, alongside revenue generation, distribution, this is an industry in which change is now a constant variable.
It's surprising to learn that at the heart of the disruption is a union voice. It's no secret that unions are seen as bastions of the old guard and the old ways. What makes this series and exploration of the WGAE's strategy worth writing about is that it belies a movement towards encouraging and empowering writers to become evangelists for their own personal presences online, so that they are not only producers of content, but consumers and likely innovators for how that content and those technologies being formed.
But, really, writers as technologists?
Indeed! Writers have been writing for digital media since its inception, in fact last year the guild tripled its number of digital media signatories. Unfortunately, writers haven't always had a voice at the bargaining table and were long setback by the disruption caused by cable television. As writers do more and more work in digital media in both entertainment and news, it's undeniable that the industry needs to be nimble and profitable and not fall into the struggles that continue to plague print journalism.
Perhaps one reason we aren't yet seeing the kind of turmoil that journalists and newspapers are struggling with is that the video storytelling arm of the entertainment industry has long had a pay-for-play model. However, Mark Lukasiewicz aptly answered:
"It's a mistake to think all the rules of the game have changed. Facts still matter. Sharp analysis still matters. Strong narratives and compelling characters still matter. Almost all of the things that made great TV journalism a generation ago still make great video storytelling today."
I asked Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGAE and Elana Levin, Communications Director of WGAE, a few questions about the future, problems of the past, and the overall relevance of the union alongside rapid technology-driven innovation:
Q: What were some of the major downfalls and challenges and historical mistakes that were made when cable came out for writers and fair compensation?
At first the programs made for cable channels were pretty basic and low budget. The production models were fluid and writers were not paid much. As I understand it, there was a general consensus that the Guild should wait until the economics became more favorable. (And some of the cable television producers did not want to deal with the union.)
Unfortunately, this meant that basic cable grew up non-Guild; when the business and production models crystallized, we were simply not there. The high-quality shows on premium cable are all Guild, but there are large swaths of non-Guild programming on the basic channels.
Q. Have writers been as surprised and caught off guard as the newspaper, magazine, and print industry or have they been able to roll with the rapid change?
WGAE members are keenly aware of the shifts in their industries - broadcast news, public television, comedy/variety, dramatic television, film, and so forth. The rise of digital media was the central issue in the 2007-2008 strike.
People were focused, not only on getting paid when their material was streamed or downloaded from the internet, but on Guild coverage for material made for digital distribution in the first place.
Our members are eager to learn more about the creative and economic trends in digital media and to develop the skills they need to participate. We know the change is already happening and that it is fundamental, and we are positioned in this space.
Q: How is the Writer's Guild organizing to stay ahead of the technology? What will keep this union relative as writers become their own agents?
We are immersed in a digital media education program. We read everything we can get our hands on; we present seminars, workshops, and classes; and (perhaps most importantly) we talk with lots and lots of people who are active in digital media.
By that I mean people who create content and people who finance and distribute it. This helps us learn what is happening but it also helps us insert the writers' perspective into the conversation.
The business and distribution models are not set. The narrative structures and styles are still being developed. By becoming active in the digital world now, when it is still mostly unformed, the Guild can help shape it and make sure that the interests of the content creators are fully recognized.
It is true that, at this point, the traditional production and ownership structures have not taken hold in the digital realm. There are major studios and broadcasters producing original content for the internet, and we are representing the people who write that content.
But a lot of the work is done by writer-owned companies, some of which are quite small. We do have some experience with that model, particularly in independent film and to some extent in public television, but we think there will be a lot more of it in digital media.
The open structure of the internet makes this possible; creators do not have to work with major studios to get access to audiences. The Writers Guild will remain very relevant to writers in this model because the money is still coming from other sources - advertisers, sponsors, foundations, studios, distributors, whomever - and we will help maximize the amount of that money going to the writers.
Also, people get their health and pension benefits through the Guild including people who own their own companies. Their benefits are portable between Guild covered jobs because the benefits plan is already set up to accommodate freelance and independent writers. And the Guild is a creative community.
The educational and social events we present to our members are very important. Writers learn from each other, they network, they rely on each to think about style and structure and career. Fundamentally, a vibrant community of creators can improve conditions; working together, writers can improve compensation and can assert greater creative control over their work. That is what we are here to do.
We are still learning how to monitor the flow of Guild-covered content over the internet and mobile devices to make sure writers are getting paid properly. The monitoring technology is developing rapidly; web sites and other distribution companies rely on it to attract advertisers. So we will get this right, soon.
Digital technology has made it much easier for writers to bypass the majors and get their work to audiences directly. At the same time, getting audiences to pay attention requires people to do many different things -- putting themselves out in all the social media, taking on more production tasks, and raising money. We have a training program to help people do those things. The more work that Guild members do in the digital world, the better the conditions will be. And the more that people writing for digital media participate in the Guild, the stronger we will be.
Anita Ondine, CEO of Seize the Media, which creates and finances transmedia entertainment properties that fully integrate feature films, TV and web series, mobile micro-narratives and gaming applications .
Moshe "Mo" Koyfman, Principal at Spark Capital, a venture capital firm focused on the media, entertainment and technology industries.
Mark Lukasiewicz, VP of NBC News specials and digital media.
Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East, launched the Writers' Guild 2.0 initiative to to address the changing territory of digital content, ensuring that writers are at the table when decisions are made that impact their creative lives and livelihood.
Previously Peterson was a partner at Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, a firm specializing in all aspects of labor law practice. He has extensive union experience, including work with the AFL-CIO, UAW, Communications Workers of America, NABET, and Laborers, among others. Representing laid off workers in the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies, he won tens of millions of dollars in severance pay, and in many other cases he has defended unions from attacks on organizing and other activities and successfully litigated against employers for evading contract obligations.
Elana Levin, Director of Communications for the Writers Guild of America, East, a labor union that represents professional writers in film, television, digital media and radio. (The union just organized writers of an iPhone app-- cool!) Most recently Elana was Assistant Director of Communications for New Media for the SEIU affiliate Workers United and before that, UNITE HERE.
She ran communications for the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy where she launched the popular DMIBlog. Elana has done everything from press to organizing for unions, community groups and has worked many New York Primary Elections while keeping some of her personal belongings intact. She blogs on Daily Kos, Huffington Post & tweets at @Elana_Brooklyn & @WGAEast.