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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Strike TV Boot Camp

LONG post, but worth the read, I think/hope.

Sorry it has been a while since I last posted. After I got back from my trip, I was involved in settling back into life/work here in LA. I have a lot of posts waiting to be written, including another Safari Picture Update, another Strike Round-Up, and one or two FFFJ posts. Plus, following a recent script consultation I did, I got an idea for another craft-related post. It has been a very long time since I've written one of those! So lots to look hopefully forward to.

But I thought I'd stick with the most timely post first. Earlier today I attended the Strike TV Boot Camp at the WGA Theater. I wasn't particularly sure what to expect, but I learned a lot and had a good time, while seeing an old face or two and meeting some new people as well. Thought I'd tell you all about it, and let you know some of what I learned.

The first guy I met as I was walking up Doheny towards the theater was Paul Barber (I think I have his name right, and I believe that is the right link on IMDB). He saw me and immediately said, "you're a writer, right?" He had identified me, as I pegged him as one too. Funny, I guess writers have a certain look to them! Well, we chatted briefly as we walked up to the theater, and I later found out he was slightly more involved than just being some other guy who was attending.

The place was really packed with a ton of people, which I found to be very exciting. I was kind of expecting there to be about 50-odd people there, but the place was really packed. I've always been terrible at estimating numbers of people in a crowd, but I'd say there were definitely a few hundred. Though there were certainly empty seats scattered throughout the theater, overall it felt generally full. I ran into Marc Zicree, whom I'd met before. He filled me in on, and gave me a copy of Star Trek New Voyages: World Enough and Time, a full-length new Star Trek episode that he directed, starring George Takei. Then, when I went to sit down, I saw Bill, which was nice. Always good to see a friendly face. I'm sure he'll have a good post up about it as well!

The event started with an introduction by Ian Deitchman, one of the founders of Strike TV. He explained that the idea is to allow writers to get back to work, and to own their work. Strike TV's plan is to have writers create and own their own content, broadcast it on the web, and use it as an Internet fundraiser. The other people involved are Jim (I didn't catch his last name), who made the "Why We Fight" video, and Peter "the Gooch" Hyoguchi. Ian said that Strike TV was the "logical next step" to follow United Hollywood, and the buzz it had created.

Strike TV will feature original shows that are not strike related, and will monetize them via ad revenues. The revenue will then be contributed to the Industry Support Fund, which benefits non-Guild members who have been hurt by the strike. Since the Writers will own their content, if a particular piece is a success, it could then be moved into other formats and exploited as the writers see fit. Ideally, said Ian, there would be some profit participation with the other creatives involved.

This would all be done under "union jurisdiction" with Strike TV as a union signatory, but since the writers would be employers and employees, there is little need for the guild to protect them from screwing themselves. Unfortunately, this also meant that the rest of my day there would largely be dedicated to educating myself, rather than learning how I could get involved, since it seems that the pieces will need to be written by WGA members. Oh well.

Ian also mentioned that Paul (whom I'd met on the street) had come up with another idea a few months earlier, also called Strike TV, which was similar. He gave him credit for it, but also said that Paul's idea was more long-term, and theirs was a short-term idea. He sees it not as a new business model. Rather it is a foundation. As he put it, before you build the railroad, you need to lay the tracks.

Next up was "the Gooch," who caught us up on the last 100 years of cinematic history. Money has always been the obstacle for cinematic storytellers, both in terms of production and distribution. But now, with the advent of affordable HD production and post-production, and with the ability to upload films onto the 'net for free, the who this is no longer a real issue. And since it is finally getting to a point where video on the Internet can be monetized, we are at the start of something big. He pointed to the start of cinema, when the big "hit" film was "Man Sneezing." And he said that now on the Internet, the big hit is "Panda Sneezing" (5.5 million views when I just watched it, FYI).

He said we are all pioneers. Creating content for the Internet is not slumming these days. It is a superior distribution medium. We just need to be the ones to create the big hits that will prove that it is a viable moneymaking medium.

Next, there was a panel discussion. On the panel were Kent Nichols, co-creator of AskANinja.com; Tom Smuts, who has written for TV and has been moving into web content; Rob LaZebnik, a writer on The Simpsons who co-founded Icebox, an early web video site; Aaron Mendelsohn, a writer who recently started VirtualArtists; and Ken Hayes, a non-writer who specializes in Internet advertising and New Media ventures.

Kent spoke first, and entertained us all with the story of AskANinja, and how it has grown. Among other things, he says that he and his co-founder gave themselves permission to be less than perfect. He cited early episodes of The Simpsons and Homestar Runner, and pointed out how much worse they were than later episodes. They started simple, built a following via their social network (they now use Ning, which I'd never seen before but which looks intriguing as a tool), and got lucky by being featured early on as an iTunes podcast.

Some relevant numbers. They started with a $50,000 investment from friends and family, that basically paid their rent, etc. Currently they have revenues of approximately $100,000 a month, 80-90% of which comes from ads. The rest comes from merchandising and other deals. Their ad deals are brokered by agents at UTA, who take their cut as well, of course. They signed their main ad deal about 1 year after launching, and currently are signed with Federated Media, which Kent seems very pleased with. Currently they get 2.5-3 million views a month and 1 million page views. They beat Adult Swim's viewer demographic.

Tom spoke next and says he sees what Kent is doing as a return to the heyday of TV production, before financial syndication (Fin-Syn) ended. He also spoke about what happened with quarterlife, and the various shifting possibilities offered to Herskovitz and Zwick.

Rob spoke about his experiences with Icebox. Basically he attributed the failure to poor management. The story he told was relatively common for web startups during the first dotcom boom. He recognized Kent for not biting off more than he could chew, and said that is really the key in this type of venture. He suggests starting small and letting the opportunities come to you.

Aaron spoke about what he sees as "Hollywood 2.0" -- a direct relationship between content creators and content consumers. He said his venture began as picket line talk, where they wondered why we were bothering to fight over pennies, DVD and the Internet, when we could just go straight to the Internet ourselves. He said writers should be out there trying to make a deal with the Googles of the world, not the studios. He met with Internet guru Henry Poole, and they decided to create VirtualArtists (just a splash page now, but bookmark it) as a marriage between Hollywood content creators and Silicon Valley.

Finally, Ken gave a PowerPoint presentation about how to monetize new media. Firstly, he pointed out that an extremely small percentage of advertising dollars are being spent online, compared with a tremendous amount of time being spent online. It was by far the most disparate segment of any media documented here.

He then broke down the various types of content and ad formats. Basically, traffic comes to a site either organically or via pay (e.g. advertising, etc.) On the published site, content can come from users, editorial, or a niche that Ken referred to as "scraped" -- taken and aggregated from other content sources around the web. Finally, advertising comes in four ways -- flat rate, CPM (cost per thousand ad views), CPC (cost per click, as with Google's AdSense program), or CPA (cost per action, basically commission for product sales, such as affiliate programs). And the largest ad segment online is via search (e.g. sponsored ads on Google).

A commenter (might have been Kent) in the crowd at that point also mentioned a recent statistic that online video views had recently reached parity with online searches, suggested the potential to monetize videos could be as large. But as everyone seemed to point out, few companies have yet figured out the key to fully monetizing video, though there is no question that they have started and are constantly experimenting.

Ken said (daringly in a room full of writers) that content is not king. Traffic is King, he believes. Your content will inevitably be scraped (one of the challenges he mentioned at the end), but if you own your traffic and find ways to bring them back to your site and keep them there, you can monetize them. You can have your content monetizing itself, no matter where it shows up, for example by embedding links to your site in videos. Other challenges he pointed out include more or less revenue sharing between web publishers and content creators, and recognizing that the real value of your content may not necessarily be in its rebroadcast, but in other areas such as merchandising.

The panel then responded to questions from the crowd. Regarding length of content, which has been most successful in shorter segments, the panelists seemed to agree that that is still the best way to go for now. But at the same time, Aaron suggested there was an evolution taking place and as TV and Internet grow closer together, this will gradually change. Kent furthermore pointed out that many people already download feature films (illegally) and watch them on their computers. So it is already happening.

Tom sees the future as Internet content that builds a brand around itself, instead of simply being the entire content in and of itself. He mentioned the way TheKnot expanded their offerings as an example of this. The content can be used to launch other revenue-generating streams.

Lastly, Kent mentioned a new organization for which he serves on the Board of Advisors: the Association for Downloadable Media. The ADM is aiming to normalize the ad business and model for videos and the like. Seems interesting.

Overall, it was a very interesting and enlightening afternoon. I learned a lot, and got thinking about projects of my own. Lastly, I'll give a shout out to someone I met in the lobby afterwards. Tanja Barnes has been making The Writers' Strike Chronicles, a podcast about the strike. She was there recording the proceedings, and interviewing people. I might make it into this episode, as she interviewed me. But either way, I recommend you check it out!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, writers for putting my family in debt and canceling our summer vacation so we can pay the heating bill. We live in NJ NOT in nice warm LA!!!


6:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because power is so cheap in Los Angeles, and our state is in so much better shape than everyone else, and our housing situation is just dandy when you look at the rest of the country.

(the above is complete sarcasm)

Give me a break, buddy. I've got a baker's dozen of friends right now - all writers - who are in the tank. A few of them are leaving their apartments to consolidate into one and split the rent.

It ain't no picnic out here, and the only people who are to blame are the people who won't show up to the table.

If you're hurting for money:

WGA's reaching out and doing everything they can. Show us where the AMPTP's reciprocating.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Shawna said...

I wish I could have been there today. Stupid day job!

Sounds like it was very informative. Thanks for the report!

9:14 AM  
Blogger Tanja Barnes said...

Hey Joel...how sweet you are to give me a shout out! Thank you!

BTW...yesterday you posted on my Wall you were under the weather. I think it's going around. I'm under weather too! Can you get cooties through the Internet?

Get well soon....

12:11 PM  

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