Friday, December 28, 2007

Morty Wants to Direct

New paradigm, or negotiating tactic?

Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Friday December 28, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Forget Warner Brothers, Universal and Disney. Say goodnight and good luck to CBS, NBC and Fox. The Hollywood studio model is about to be turned upside down.

Leading film and TV writers, accompanied by actors, directors and Silicon Valley investors, are poised to announce the creation of new ventures aimed at bypassing the studios.

"It's a whole new model to bring content directly to the masses," said screenwriter Aaron Mendelsohn. "We're gathering together a team of A-list TV and film writers, along with their A-list equivalent from Silicon Valley."

Mendelsohn is not alone. Seven groups are thought to be working on forming companies to challenge the dominance of the studios. The new companies plan to create programmes and films and distribute them via the internet, circumventing the old model of big studios owned by even bigger parent companies churning out content and controlling when and where it is seen.

The developments come as the screenwriters' strike shows no sign of a resolution. A report presented last week to a city council committee estimated that the strike would cost Los Angeles between $380m and $2.5bn (£190m to £1.25bn).

As the two sides in the dispute - the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers - trade insults, one perhaps unintended consequence of the standoff is that the people who make the programmes and films have seen that they can get their message out without the help of the studios.

"The strike videos confirmed that you can create content directly for the internet and find an audience," said director and writer George Hickenlooper, who has made a series of short films in support of the writers.

Those films, under the title Speechless, have featured big stars - from cinema great Woody Allen to TV personalities such as Jay Leno - and attracted big audiences on the internet.

Some of those involved have even said that when they are next out of contract they may go straight to the internet, taking advantage of services such as Google Video or YouTube, to bypass the studios altogether ...

The irony for the writers involved in setting up the new ventures is that at the core of the current dispute is the question of how to reimburse writers for work that is distributed on the internet.

The studios say that it is still too early to say if the internet will generate income to be shared with the writers. The writers counter that the studios crow to Wall Street about the profits to be made from the digital sector.

"The internet is a place where they can't maintain control," he said. "They are trying to introduce an old-school control-orientated way of thinking into a system that rejects and repels that tradition of control."

The hi-tech community, he notes, is more comfortable with the notion of relinquishing control over its investments.

"It's a different model," he says. "They really believe in the free and open source software movement; a sharing, egalitarian system."

Hickenlooper is also teaming up with a high-tech entrepreneur, in this case Jordan Mechner, who created the Prince of Persia videogame. One of their first projects is a feature film released in daily segments.

"We're doing low-budget content that will be distributed on a daily basis through the internet," he said. "The idea is to use A-list talent. It's not George Clooney but it's names we know." The film will be released over a month or 50 days and subsequently released in its entirety on DVD ...

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