Wandering the Consumer Electronics Show, it's impossible not to see it in perspective with current negotiations. I've covered CES for 14 years, and once-unimaginable technology is already commonplace. DVDs, digital cameras, Tivo, recently just ideas, and now as normal as Spaghetti-O's. New technology comes very fast.
And, yes, that odd Internet thing. Years ago, giants GE and Sears owned GEnie and Prodigy, services that accessed this "Worldwide Web." Some goofy, little start-up, America OnLine, was all in text. David crushed Goliath. Then bought Time-Warner. Time Magazine named Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos its Man of the Year for changing how the world does business. Nine years ago.
That Internet thing. It's the future, you know. Honest.
Whatever many billions of dollars the Internet already holds, however, (and swimming the ocean of CES, it's profoundly massive) it's nothing compared to how it will soon truly explode. And thanks to the AMPTP corporations leaving the table and accelerating the issue, it will happen sooner than the AMPTP thinks. And it will happen with or without them. Indeed, as the AMPTP cavalierly now finishes negotiating with a guild not on strike, it may well happen without them even being aware.
And then there's the elephant in the room to seal the deal. More on that in a moment.
An early proponent of all this is Patrick Goldstein, whose L.A. Times column, "The Big Picture," has repeatedly addressed the Internet's entrepreneurial opportunities for WGA writers. Goldstein, a longtime friend, though I won't hold that against him, has been a yammerer about technology since he regularly took record companies to task for not embracing media changes. That hasn't worked out all too well for them.
There's nothing new-fangled about the Internets. People stream TV series online, complete with ads. They pay to download movies. They watch commercial webisodes. So, the question isn't "if." It's "when and how?" Microsoft's new Mediaroom blends TV-Internet-PVR-downloading seamlessly. Samsung's Info Link and Sharp's Aquos Net build integration directly into their TV sets for sale this coming year. And just two weeks ago, Netflix announced a deal to allow its Internet-based "Watch Instantly" movies to be viewed directly on LG televisions. Apple announced its own similar program with iTunes last week.
Make no mistake, it's happening. The Guild is already talking to huge Internet companies. (And "huge" as in huge.) Two weeks ago, the ball already started rolling as the WGA announced a deal with the online studio MRC - a company backed by heavyweights including AT&T and Goldman, Sachs. Others are right on their heels. All these companies understand the Internet - it's their field. They ache to provide new content. How could they not?
Just consider the Internet companies for whom the marriage of Internet and movie/TV content would be a match from heaven. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Yahoo, Audible, eBay, YouTube. Why not Samsung, too? Why not Sharp, Panasonic, JVC? Companies used to sponsor shows regularly - why not again, but on their websites to bring traffic and promotion?
How far do you have to stretch to consider this? Last week, a member of Guild leadership mentioned that he expected an announcement soon of a deal with Yahoo. If so, that's massive. Because it's hard to imagine its equally-massive competitors wanting to be left far behind.
And the business plan for such companies doesn't seem terribly difficult to figure.
A modest $8 million movie has few additional costs, with no prints and inexpensive Internet advertising. Charging a mere $5 means that if only 1.6 million people around the entire world access your movie, you've broken even. No risky "opening weekend." It's online. Forever. A slate of five movies - that's a paltry $40 million investment. That's chump change for Microsft-Google-Amazon-JVC. And you can still release a DVD. (Note: It's a safe bet that writers will get more than 4 cents.)
And the same business model holds for "TV." Original web series are already playing. They're small now, but once you have working plans between the WGA and these New Media corporations, real money is at play - and that gets major talent which attracts viewers.
I'm not saying it's this easy. I'm saying - it's going to happen.
(And is already. Witness the recent L.A. Times front page story, "Striking Writers in Talks to Launch Web Start-ups." Filmmaker Doug Limon - "The Bourne Identity" - just signed a WGA deal for his substantial Jackson Bites company to develop programming content for New Media.)
One other bonus: Hollywood ageism, sexism, racism...say goodbye. These are businessmen, they want gravitas, credentials. Serious business partnerships that make money. A real New Economic Partnership.
And then the biggest bonus of all. The elephant in the room.
The greatest bane to writers is that they don't control copyright of their work. The corporations are legally the "author." Playwrights own their copyright. Novelists own their copyright. Not screenwriters, not TV writers. But with the Internet, the business and legal dynamic changes.
The important point of New Media for striking writers - since every project starts with that blank page - is that it will be writers who take the project lead in this new dynamic. Gross participation, a fantasy dream in Hollywood for writers, is already an actuality in New Media. With the Internet, it goes even further: writers will be able to own their copyright, protect their work, control their future.
If you don't think this will drive writers to the Internet, you have your brain switched to the "Off" position. And it will dynamite the Internet wide open.
And because the AMPTP corporations twice walked away from the table, they may find themselves left behind. It's a critical risk for them. If the new "networks" and "studios" are Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and virtually anyone, then you don't need Old Hollywood. You don't need to own a studio lot, you don't need a distribution network, you don't need an FCC frequency. You need money and a website.
You don't even need a website. Release your movie or even original series direct-to-DVD. The tech landscape is wide open. Gimp.TV is a sponsored "network" already.
"Last year everyone talked about 'someday,' as in, 'Someday, when everyone watches video on the Internet . . . ,' " media analyst James McQuivey of Forrester Research told the Los Angeles Times. "That 'someday' language has gone...Change is here. It's upon us."
How little do the AMPTP corporations not get it? Their communications director Jesse Hiestand recently wrote to the L.A. Times, responding to a column by Mr. Goldstein:
The writers might want to start "digging for themselves," as Goldstein suggests, but if either side tries digging completely on its own, they'll find not the gold of which Goldstein writes but rather a grave of their own making.
That's the same sound vaudeville theater owners made when their talent left to be in those silly "talking picture shows."
Digging for gold?? No one has to dig. Microsoft just paid Viacom alone $500 million for a single deal. NBC announced it expects to make $1 billion in digital revenue this year. Sharp is spending $4 billion to build just one factory to make those new integrated-LCDs. And the metadata income these media companies earn from selling collected data on their New Media users (it's built into Blu-Ray) trumps this all. Dig??!! Guy, it's raining.
It doesn't enter into AMPTP heads (seemingly buried in the sand) that writers joining forces with Microsoft-Google-Amazon-Netflix is as far from the concept of going "on its own" as could be. With friends like that, solitude is over-crowded. Indeed, we have reached the point now that whatever the AMPTP does - whatever the DGA membership does - whatever even the Writers Guild itself does...the landscape has already changed.
After the Writers Guild signs agreements with those really huge Internet companies, movies and web series will start appearing online. The studios and networks can join in the future - or buy a ticket. Credit cards accepted. Don't forget your password.
Read more about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.