Sunday, January 28, 2007


(I hate it when people characterize my industry ramblings as rants, because they're not composed in that frame of mind. I conquered my anger issues when I gave up Golf. So accept what follows as quiet fireside musings by quirky Uncle Jim, as he sits with a glass of Merlot, gazes at the television -- and loads his shotgun.)

A recurring theme at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland was the growing inability of governments, influence groups and multi-national corporations to control their populations, target audiences and customers.

For those of you unfamiliar with Davos, it's an Alpine ski destination that is home to the 11 guys who secretly run the world. The fellas stack their boards one week each January, giving up ollies and fakies in order to have some of the world's best minds up to the chalet to get wasted and guess the future.

My favorite prediction was from a panel on new media: Within the next year a major corporation or political leader will be destroyed by the work of a single blogger.

Who would have believed our major institutions were that vulnerable!

I can see DMC lining up Shaw Cable already...

But apparently these institutions are indeed that frail and they're scared too. For panel after panel at Davos showed that no matter how an agenda is spun or how diligently the powers that be stay "on message", people just can't be expected to do what's expected of them anymore. They're using this new fangled internet thing to consider second or even third opinions and demanding a better deal and more control of their lives.

The Internet tubes exposed some showbiz examples of this in the last few days...

In Toronto, the ACTRA sort-of-a-strike continued as union opponents began a concerted campaign to blame Canada's actors for our decline in production and the industry's overall woes. An article in the Toronto Star headlined "The End" painted a stark picture of artists and technicians facing bankruptcy, losing their homes or having to leave the country to find work. And while all of that is painfully true, it's telling that any blame at all would be placed on the group perhaps least responsible.

A number of producers also copied me an Anti-ACTRA video. I decided not to post it here because it's ill informed, probably libelous and so badly made it proves beyond any doubt most producers don't have a creative bone in their bodies.

The short presentation claims "actor greed" is destroying our industry and the ACTRA membership is being unwittingly manipulated by SAG (The American Screen Actor's Guild). That message is delivered with a tone of entitlement implying the messenger is in charge of greed and manipulation, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, as the two sides failed at mediation and headed off to court, several CFTPA spokesmen decried the loss of the "Big Studio Pictures" which would have come to Toronto if not for the strike.

Now, correct me if your experience is different from mine, but those films traditionally arrive with their stars and the bulk of their supporting players trailing them into the best hotels and restaurants. To be sure, ACTRA members work on these productions, often in significant numbers, but rarely do they comprise more than a fraction of the budget line alloted to onscreen talent.

Even in LA, where a certain strata of actors command enormous fees, the majority of SAG members seldom work above scale, or scale plus 10% if they have a good agent (that extra 10% being the agent's fee).

I've seen reliable figures indicating that the Canadian actor portion of the Big Studio Pictures filmed here amounts to 2% of the budget. Since ACTRA is allowing producers to sign letters of continuance to keep shooting despite the strike by paying a 5% increase in fees and 2% more for insurance and retirement, that means the average Big Studio Picture would see its budget skyrocket by a crippling tenth of a percentage point.

And that's sending everybody to North Carolina and Romania instead?

The CFTPA spokesmen also mentioned the general instability ACTRA has created by putting producers in the position of not knowing if they can keep shooting.

But virtually every producer already up and running or firmly scheduled to shoot in the next few months has signed those letters of continuance, proving stability either isn't an issue or nobody at CFTPA knows the words to "Solidarity Forever".

Both sides claim they offered to set aside the thorny issue of internet rights for a year but the other side turned them down. In CFTPA's version ACTRA demanded a 50% increase in fees to do that, while ACTRA's version said the producers wanted those interim rights for "free". Either way, it's obvious they both don't have either the tools or the desire to tackle that job.

The new media will be the core issue for both SAG and the WGA when their contracts expire in 9 months time. Letting the big dogs fight over that bone makes sense, because we here will eventually have to work to similar rates and conditions to remain competitive.

So what's really causing this anti-actor venom?

I think it's the coming labor unrest in Hollywood. LA studios are already stockpiling material in advance of the anticipated shutdown. In the past, that preparative strategy has included offshore production and ACTRA has put a crimp in those plans.

Production is booming in Vancouver where a seperate Performer union, UBCP, has created a window of unfettered production until April. But there are growing producer concerns that UBCP has been put in the catbird seat for their own negotiations, positioned to almost dictate terms in a few short weeks.

I'll get to the reasons the unions and Guilds are digging in their heels. But back to the venom. It comes from the same source as the angst in Davos -- a sense of entitlement.

Producers and Studios have historically been in charge and are now feeling squeezed both financially and creatively. They're not used to that and don't like it.

The Canadian Television Fund squabble aside, money is getting harder to raise everywhere. In addition, anybody with a creative streak, a camcorder and a credit card now can achieve product of almost studio quality to take to Park City or AFM -- some of them good enough to get distribution and therefore screen time that doesn't go to the big boys, precious shelf space they once commanded at Blockbuster, or simply a few of the dollars the average guy used to spend for entertainment.

Interestingly, a lot of those films also feature actors you wouldn't normally find outside the studio system. But the squeeze is hitting those people too and the easiest way back into that high earner strata is to get a good film (or even "any" film) released.

Like the multi-nationals now at the mercy of a single blogger, the networks and studios we once thought owned the world are having to converge and acquire to hang on to their market share, and since even that may not work they're getting cranky. They want their world back and their sense of entitlement is showing.

This week the MPAA, the communal corporate voice of the studios, threatened to delay new releases for up to a month in Canada to combat the scourge of camcorder piracy apparently running rampant in Montreal and ruining studio bottom lines.

I guess the thought was that this would scare our governments into enacting tough anti-piracy legislation or otherwise choke off the cheap supply of new releases flooding local malls and the internet.

Apparently, the entitlement gene prevented them from thinking this through and perhaps realizing such a strategy would also mean losing the spillover impact of their US marketing campaigns, creating the need to design a second campaign to run a month later, which would have to not only reignite interest but counter negative reviews and spoilers.

I guess this would mean Canadian Pay TV access and DVD releases would also be delayed by a month, or the studios would face further audience shrinkage by lessening the wait times to see a film via one of those options. I suppose you could lobby the Canadian government to enact tough new regulations preventing Canadians from ordering DVDs from instead of, but wouldn't it be easier to put up a sign in theatres saying they'll confiscate any recording devices and pay a couple of high school kids minimum wage to wander through the theatres during each screening to look for anybody filming the film?

Those kids used to be called "ushers" and they also asked people to stop talking, put their feet down or turn off their cellphones thus enhancing the movie-going experience so there wasn't a debate about whether it would be more fun to go out to see a movie instead of staying in.

I have no idea how these marketing geniuses are strategizing their European release patterns today after an Italian high court Judge on Friday ruled that downloading is no longer illegal there.

The high school pirate down the street assures me that only idiots bother with camcorder downloads anyway when quality DVD Screeners are readily available. He showed me his laptop copy of a film that's been in theatres less than a week. Pristine and clear, it included a warning that the number in the corner would identify the user if his copy were shared or distributed. The code number had been pixeled out.

Perhaps our institutions are vulnerable because the guys running them don't have enough sense to know how cheap and easy it is to embed an invisible code to identify the industry insiders who are actually behind the illegal distribution of their material.

Meanwhile, other artists are embracing the sharing of their work and building audience loyalty by serving that market as well as selling their work on easily transferable flash cards and usb sticks.

It's always easier to beat up your audience base, the rubes you feel you are better than and whose money you've grown to feeling entitled to; than it is to figure out how to serve them better. "Serve them? Hey, Buddy we make the rules here not the audience!"

I recall a character in a Hollywood movie of the late 60's saying, "Stop trying to hold back the hands of the clock! They'll tear your arms out!" Maybe they don't even watch their own films...

The same sense of entitlement has them dictating to artists too. Two weeks ago, New Line Co-Chair Bob Shay tossed "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson off "The Hobbit" amid a dispute over profit sharing on the trilogy, saying:

"He's got a quarter of a billion dollars so far. And this guy sues us! I don't want to work with him any more." He then reminded us of his entitlement with..."I don't even expect him to say 'thank you' for having me make it happen."

Jackson's response was simply: "Our legal action is about holding New Line to its contractual obligations."

A source in Variety surmised that Shaye's disparaging remarks were an attempt to put the focus on the millions Jackson had made instead of any book-cooking on the studio's part.

The problems in our business and elsewhere come down to the same thing.

We elect politicians who promise to make our lives better.

They don't.

We buy products from companies who tell us they're reliable.

They aren't.

We make movies for producers who promise to share the profits.

They won't.

And now the growing availability of information and shared experience is revealing just how deep those past deceptions have been. Actors and writers who've been royally screwed on residuals and DVD income for years aren't going to license any new media without a system in place that provides them with a fair share of the profits and accountability for the numbers.

They just won't!

The same new media that is causing this revolution is bridging the gap between artists and their audience, providing new ways to connect without the need for the corporate middle men who now sit between them and control both.

Author Primo Levi once said, "There is only one crime and that is undeserved privilege."

So guys, if you want to maintain your privileged position and stay in charge, it's time to stop feeling entitled and start being part of finding a solution.


Anonymous said...

I'm covering the ACTRA dispute on my blog mainly because I watch Degrassi. I'm putting the word out on the various forums and it seems no one is jumping high yellow mad. Although I know Degrassi's team probably signed the contract, they haven't been renewed for a 7th season yet.

I agree with alot of what you are saying and am discovering that alot of business practices behind the scenes are dishonest -- makes making a film much more harder than it is.

Thank god for YouTube, although everyone always talks shit about it.

Did you know Dennis Haysbert left 24 for the same reason? He wasn't being paid enough for DVD residuals.

Mef said...

jim, i'm getting tired of saying great post, but, um great post.


Anonymous said...

Re: I recall a character in a Hollywood movie of the late 60's saying, "Stop trying to hold back the hands of the clock! They'll tear your arms out!" Maybe they don't even watch their own films...

It was Elliott Gould as Harry Bailey in "Getting Straight" with Candice Bergen co-starring.