Friday, December 9, 2011

Striking a Nerve

Yesterday's blog post, about the shadiness of Prospect Park's efforts to "circumvent the unions" and bring ABC's recently cancelled shows to the web without having to deal with the bother of paying actors, camera operators, writers, wardrobe people, etc. fair wages,  obviously struck a chord with people. I've never received so many private messages, Tweets or Facebook comments about/links to a blog post as this one. Nor have any of my previous blog posts ever received so many hits in so short a time.

I know I didn't write The Great Gatsby, or say anything remotely original. In fact, I think the reason so many people have read that piece, and passed it along to others is that I didn't say anything revolutionary. I think a lot of people heard the news about Prospect Park considering bringing in an overseas partner and bypassing the unions and felt the same way I did: that this would be just plain wrong. It flies in the face of what so many people are fighting for, these days: workers' rights, basic benefits, the end of the huge inequity between the 1% and the 99%. I believe a lot  of people read about PP's on-going negotiations and thought, "This is wrong."

Interestingly enough, of all the communication I've had about this blog entry, only one party has come out in favor of Prospect Park, and the move to squash existing union rules. I won't name the party, because I'm not interested in giving free publicity to an outfit that supports union busting. what I will say is that it's a new media production company. I'll also say that their arguments in favor of PP's efforts are as "ridiculous" as they labelled my blog post.

According to this party, working within a new media should abolish baseline union standards that were developed for television. A new medium, according to this party, calls for a whole new set of rules. This party likens the unions involved to the unions that protects the person employed to raise the curtain at Broadway theaters - these days, the curtains are opened and closed electronically, yet union rules still call for a curtain raiser to be paid a full salary. Pretty ridiculous. I agree. But it's a comparison that makes no sense. This party argues that a new medium calls for new negotiations and new contracts. That's double speak for "we think it's ok to pay people less money and cut their benefits, if we want to, because this isn't tv, where budgets are big."  If this isn't One-Percent-Speak, I don't know what is.

This was never about having to pay a curtain man, even though the function had become automated.

Quite the opposite: it's about expecting the curtain man to show up and do his job, as usual,  but only get paid as if his job was mostly being done by a machine.

New media IS a different animal from television. That's why it was "ridiculous" for Prospect Park to promise the public the same production quality, the same casts, and the same frequency of programming. Since the media is new, what needs to be renegotiated first shouldn't be how much the actors or writers or crew earn. What needed to be negotiated from the very beginning was - HOW COULD THESE SHOWS BE CHANGED TO REALISTICALLY BE DEVELOPED FOR WEB VIEWING?  Instead, Prospect park thought backwards - they promised the whole enchilada, and then figured they could buy it at the rate of a questionable 99c Taco Bell taco.

The party that came out against my blog called it not only "ridiculous", but "unfair."

That's rich. Prospect Park is trying to bilk workers out of their hard-earned union rights, and I'm being unfair.

The Case For New Media 

In case anyone is wondering, I'm the last person to be against web-based programming. If anything, I'm excited by it. I think it's the future of entertainment. I think it's a shame that the most widely talked-about new media venture these days is Prospect Park's attempt to bring OLTL and AMC to the web, because it's a mess, and it's not representative of what new media can be. Neither are the ridiculous and unfair arguments made by the unnamed new media operation mentioned above.

Successful new media ventures have been the ones that haven't tried to simply lift a television or cinema model and stick it on the web. I'm not a fan of Venice: The Series, but at least the people who developed it had the presence of mind to create something that didn't require 15 elaborate sets. What I saw of the series used only two or three sets that were existing structures: restaurant scenes filmed in an actual restaurant. hotel room scenes filmed in a hotel room, living room scenes filmed in someone's living room. A lot of what I saw on Venice was a mess, but at least they got this right.

Tello Films produces original, successful programming that's been specifically developed for the web. No one-hour, daily shows with a cast of 30, and a 52-week schedule. Their programming works on the web because it was specifically developed, from the ground up, for the web. They don't promise or claim to recreate the television experience; they offer a new and different programming experience.

And this is the root of Prospect Park's debacle. They thought they could lift two established television programs that cost an enormous amount to produce, and just drop them, as they were, onto the internet. In their screwy, stupid and greedy minds they figured, "Same shows, same frequency, same amount of work...but if people are watching on smaller screens we can pay people less to make them."

Now THAT is ridiculous and unfair.


Lee Mall said...

Maybe the time slot got less viewers and people aren't aware for giving some feedbacks and responds on social media sites.

Diane said...

I defer to your knowledge on this subject when I ask this question; Isn't Prospect Park at least able to pay workers, where Tello Films productions are done with mostly unpaid labor? I love Tello Films, but what is the difference if Prospect Park asks for lower wages and Tello pays nothing, or next to nothing? I agree production values for Prospect Park would have to be lowered, but until internet based entertainment catches on, are lower wages really an unreasonable request?

Snapper said...

The difference is huge: PP is proposing not altering their production model in any way to adjust for being on the web. The actors, writers, and crew on AMC and OLTL worked on those shows as their sole or main source of income. The shows are an hour long, and air every day, 52 weeks a year. No hiatus. No reruns. They film on almost every weekday of the year, and each episode can take up to 14 hours to film.

Tello produces content that's much more compact, because it has been developed, from the very beginning, for this medium. No one is counting on their work on Cowgirl Up, for instance, as their main source of support. That series shot, over a few days - total. Not every week day for a year.

Think about what PP is asking people to do: it's not to volunteer their time and show up for a few weekends. They're saying that they will require people to still work full time, all year round on these shows, and rely on them as their only or main source of income, but that they don't think they have any obligation to pay what existing union rules deem is a fare wage. These rules have been formulated and agreed upon based on what the work involved encompasses. Keep in mind that a lot of these people are already making a lot less than they did several years back, because tv productions have taken some pretty big hits.

In short, Tello is a small group of like-minded woman who have agreed, from the get-go, to produce these short, limited web series together, as a sideline...possibly with little or no compensation involved. Prospect Park, on the other hand, is telling artists and technicians that they've just lowered the minimum wage without consulting anyone, and that everyone had better like it.

How would you like it if you went to your full-time job, tomorrow, and your boss casually let you know that the company is in trouble and that he had the option of cutting you down to 50% time at the same rate, or keeping you at 100% time, but cutting you down to 50% of your current salary, and that he's decided the latter worked best for him?

Diane said...

I do understand your argument, but I do not agree with it. It's a free market where labor can decide when and where to work. Prospect Park should not have promised the fans what they did, but the labor are not indentured servants and can choose not to work with them.

Funny you should ask the question about my job because in essence that is what's happening to me and many workers. Companies are hurting and are being forced (or are taking advantage of the poor economy, in some cases) to do exactly what you ask.

For fans of shows considering a move to online this will continue to be a sore point until someone comes up with a way to monetize web series. Tello Films is on that track and I hope they find a model that works and continues to allow them to grow.

Thanks for your perspective and reply.

Snapper said...

Of course it's a free market economy, but it was Prospect Park who made the promises of the same model, the same casts, the same quality and the same shows. The writers and actors never made these promises. *They* - PP- set up that expectation and, now that they cannot make it happen, they're blaming the unions' refusal to accept their offers as the cause of their failure. And labor has, in fact, chosen to do just as you've mentioned - chosen not to get on board with a project where they won't be compensated.

This is like Detroit promising to deliver in a week 25,000 well-made American cars that they plan to sell for $5,000 a piece, before they even have a crew to work the assembly line...and then finding that no one in the auto industry is willing to work round-the-clock on the assembly line for minimum wage.

I'm sorry that you're experiencing the same sort of ugliness - I don't think anyone should be expected keep working at 100%, for less money, in a world where the cost of living is soaring. Last year, funding for my position was at great risk. I was lucky enough to have my employer talk to me about things as they developed and offer to cut me down to 4 days a week, so that my hourly wage would remain the same, and I could possibly find a way to earn the difference as an independent contractor. THAT is good and responsible management.

The big - and not so complicated - thing for Prospect Park to try and take in is that you can't just take a tv show and drop it on the web, without making adjustments. Imagine if that had been done when radio shows went to television? Would you watch a television show that was just actors standing around a microphone, reading their lines? AMC needed serious cuts before it was ever cancelled. The first thing PP should have considered was cutting down the cast to the 6-8 key actors/characters, and scaling down to no more than three or four sets. Then they should have thought about keeping maybe two writers, who would work on 25 minute episodes, to be produced 3 per week. Then they could have planned out a calender that included a hiatus in every season. Done this way, they could have shot this show for no more than two weeks out of every month, with a smaller cast and crew - who could still earn scale and also pursue other opportunities for income.

Diane said...

All things considered, if PP took all of your suggestions for scaling down production, do you think they could still afford to pay union wages to labor? What is/was their plan for monetizing? Strictly advertising, subscription, a hybrid or something else all together?

For web based entertainment to really take hold, I feel sacrifice is essential for all parties, but I could be wrong...

Snapper said...

There's the rub - they didn't really HAVE a plan...other than to promise a certain product on a certain date, WITHOUT EVEN HAVING ANY INVESTORS. Who does that? They assumed the creative people involved would just be so glad to be offered work that they'd be on board, no matter what. They paid for the options for these shows and assumed the actors and writers and crews came as part of the package. As you point out - it IS a free market economy. We don't have serfs in America. Just because you buy the shop, doesn't mean the clerk has to agree to stay on, when you announce his pay will be cut.

PP's "plan" was supposedly to get sponsors (which they never did.) Then, they talked about airing on the whe, and also on cable tv (as far as anyone knows, no deal was ever cut with any cable network.)
Lots of actors have said that they were never, ever contacted by PP. This says a lot about their so-called plan.

Could the scenario I used have been done? It's possible - because you'd be talking about a much, much smaller crew, cast, and production, overall. Guiding Light managed, for several years, to produce a much smaller, more streamlined, cheaper show than AMC or OLTL. it could have happened, if there had been sponsors...but PP never HAD sponsors, even when they were talking about a full-scale, tv-type production.

If they had proposed a different animal - I could totally agree that union negotiations would be in order. Not necessarily to talk about different pay scales, but different perimeters, overall. If, for instance, I'm contracted to write for PP's newfangled web series, which is a totally different animal than what I've been working on for ABC, maybe I'd be willing to agree to make my salary a combination of straight salary and a cut of the profits from dvd sales and merchandising. Maybe, too, I'd be happy to agree to working for PP for two weeks a month, with the provision that I could write for a network soap for the rest of the time, since there's no longer competition between the shows/networks. But telling actors, writers, etc that they're expected to come along for the ride, full time, at below-union wages is not something that I can't be on board with, and I'm glad the unions weren't on board, either.

Diane said...

I have no true knowledge about how this works, but do the owners of the options have any responsibility to perform due diligence as far as the buyer being able to produce, or do they just sell the option and hope the buyer doesn't tarnish what they've created? Seems such a shame that PP has screwed this up and won't be able to bring the show online.

Snapper said...

PP leased the option, but ABC or whoever owns the intellectual property. I'm sure they have a lot of control over any changes that can be made. Like, you probably couldn't just hire five people from your block and give them a script and slap the ALL MY CHILDREN name on it, and expect to get away with it, legally. Or you couldn't decide you wanted to use the name for your web porn series. Lots of times people pay for a five year option on something and never do anything with it - either because they choose not to, or because it doesn't pan out. Sometimes you hear about someone optioning a book or play, but then the movie never gets made. If I understand correctly, paying for the option only means that no one else can produce it, not that you necessarily will or have to. Kirk Douglas had the rights to one Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest for years and never did anything with it. He sold it to his son, who produced a masterpiece. PP leased the rights to these shows - didn't buy them outright - but they're not obligated to produce anything. It just means no one else CAN.

It also bears mentioning that there doesn't seem to be any evidence that PP has ever done any web-based work in the past. They optioned products and made promises for types of productions that they had no experience with. I love to cook, but I'm not about to commit to catering your wedding.

Diane said...

I was afraid that was going to be the answer. I knew having the option meant just that, you have an option to produce. I was hoping it also meant you had to have the means, even if you decided not to produce. I guess that would be in a perfect world.

Thanks for writing the blog and taking the time to answer my questions. I've learned a bit today and even though it wasn't what I wanted to learn, it's a good thing.

Snapper said...

Thank you for the interesting talk, and for reading the blog. It's most interesting to me when people read it and challenge my opinions. :)