Sunday, November 11, 2007

Man the Lifeboats

The Writers Guild of America, which represents writers for feature films and TV series, is currently on strike. The strike is already affecting daily programming like Leno, Letterman, etc. and will be affecting just about everything in the U.S. by January if the strike continues.

Animation writing falls under two separate unions, the Writers Guild and The Animation Guild. Generally, it's the prime time series like The Simpsons that are covered by the WGA while kidvid on channels like Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Network is covered by TAG.

Mark Evanier, a member of both writers organizations, is going to great lengths on his blog to answer reader questions and explain the guild's position. His blog is an excellent place to start if you're interested in the issues behind the strike.

When the system is running (not necessarily working, but running), people stay quiet about problems as nobody wants to jeopardize income by alienating people. However, one of the interesting byproducts of the strike is that truth about the system leaks out. It's amazing how dysfunctional the system is, but it explains a lot about what we get to watch. There has been a systematic reduction of competition, greater executive meddling in creative endeavors and increased alienation of creators whose work is the foundation for the entire system.

Marshall Herskovitz (with parter Ed Zwick) is the creator of TV series like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. In this article, he writes about how the change of rules in the 1980's has led to the demise of independent production companies and led to six companies controlling just about everything on TV. Herskovitz and Zwick have determined, even with their track record, that the game is rigged and they've decided to take their ideas elsewhere. They're are doing an end run around the big six by producing Quarterlife for the web.

For more evidence that the game is rigged, there's this article by Todd Alcott about the gatekeepers he has to deal with in order to get a movie into production. With the consolidation of the entertainment business, the number of gatekeepers has proliferated. After all, if there are only a handful of big media companies, they're going to get deluged by projects and somebody has to field them. The problem is that the gatekeepers are not qualified and their only contribution is to add friction to the process; they stop it or slow it down. As detailed in Desperate Networks by Bill Carter, which I wrote about here, TV's biggest hits are often turned down by gatekeepers whose job is to discover hits. Mostly, TV hits make it to air though dumb luck.

The great paradox is that the struggle for growth and to dominate an industry leads to stagnation, which sows the seeds of collapse. Detroit thought it owned the auto business until competition from outside took it down. Marvel and DC fought over a shrinking market as if it was the only pool of comics readers, then manga turned up and showed them how much they were missing. The recording industry collapsed when technology made it possible for people to bypass the restrictions of albums and allowed indie bands to reach an audience without a recording contract.

Today's N.Y. Times has an article questioning whether conglomerates are in financial danger.
“Across the board, people are wondering if their companies are too big and unwieldy and unfocused,” says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for executive programs at the School of Management at Yale.

Of course, just as fashion styles come and go, so has the favored model for the American corporation. In the 1960s and 1970s, conglomerates like ITT and Gulf + Western were all the rage. But in the 1980s, investors began to complain about poor performance and an obvious lack of synergy (Gulf + Western owned everything from sugar plantations to movie studios), and the conglomerates were broken up.

By the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, it seemed like the conglomerate was making a reappearance. Now in the wake of the departure of Mr. Parsons [of Time Warner], Mr. Prince [of Citibank] and Mr. O’Neal [of Merrill Lynch], the question of whether size matters in corporate America is up for debate again. “We’re at an inflection point,” says Mr. Sonnenfeld. “If the economy weakens, it might be more likely these giants will be broken up.”

To paraphrase Arthur Brisbane, animation is a just barnacle attached to the media ship. The writers strike provides more evidence that the media ship is taking on water. The writers argument is that by not rewarding the crew sufficiently, the ship will sink even faster.

There's no easy answer for people who work in animation. We all need a paycheque from somewhere and these days it likely comes from, directly or indirectly, a large media corporation. But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that the media ship is taking on water. Like Marshall Herskovitz, it's time to start building our own boats.


Michael Sporn said...

I certainly agree with your final thesis.

The unfortunate ones are those who are dependent on the big companies to do the type of work they've specialized in doing. They may be making a dollar today, but the industry could decide to MoCap Bugs Bunny in the future, and the checks would be gone. (We've already seen movie execs declare 2D animation dead and then destroy the animation discs they owned.
Oh yes, they put hundreds out of work in the process.)

Smaller individuals - the "mom and pop" stores of animation - are struggling to swim but are surviving. Bill Plympton is now completing another feature with his own money. He's the perfect model, and more like him are needed to keep animation afloat.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Very interesting. The "Todd Alcott" link is giving the Marshall Herskovitz article though...

Mark Mayerson said...

Sorry about the link. I've fixed it now.

Steve Schnier said...

To follow up on Michael Sporn's comment about Bill Plympton, we have to find and develop niche markets for our work. Michel Gagne is another artist who has found his own way. In effect, we must create our own brands.

The grim reality is that the only people you can count on -- is yourself.