In Parts 1 – 4 of this series, I’ve presented various reasons why I believe the current Hollywood business models are flawed. But what good am I screaming out what everyone already knows if I can’t offer any solutions?
So here are my solutions. They have their own flaws, to be sure, but at their core they are designed to make the industry operate more efficiently and improve profitability.
Let’s start with feature films. There is no question that the expensive blockbusters have a place in Hollywood. Big expenditures, big production values, big marketing campaigns. These massive undertakings attract big audiences and generate big revenues. Now, I could argue that there is enormous waste of capital in these endeavors, but the truth is that the studios already know this. The problem is that there are so many people that they must keep happy that nickel-and-diming these productions just won’t make much difference. Studios pay big directors and big production people the big bucks because they have the experience and stamina to manage these behemoths.
So let’s just leave these babies alone – particularly since Hollywood has caught on to the power of making movies based on pre-branded material. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you can market a property to people already familiar with the brand, you’ll have less work to do. Hell, they finally figured out how to make a movie out of the game “Monopoly” – something I pitched when the project was at Carolco some 15 years ago. Disney made the smartest acquisition move I’ve seen in years when it bought Marvel. Not only did they get the material Marvel has already produced and has in the pipeline, they get a set of world-class producers such as Kevin Feige. Marvel understands its universe and its audience. Even the worst-performing of their movies makes money.
No, I’m talking about everything else. The entire system is a mess from an operational standpoint. We have to take the whole thing apart and redesign it. From Part 1, we learned that a piece of material has to go through multiple gatekeepers before it gets produced. Thousands of writers submit material to hundreds of agents, who filter the material to dozens of producers, who each have 40 projects they are developing, while trying to convince tens of executives to consider these projects, resulting in several dozen movies getting made each year.
Wasted productivity abounds. Enormous amounts of time are sucked up reading material, most of which doesn’t have a chance of being made. Even more time is used during “meet and greets” in which an executive who has liked a writer’s work will meet said writer at executive’s office and talk about how much they both love movies, each trying to impress the other and, if both are single, sussing out the odds of nooky. Then the writer gets sent off to come up with a pitch for something the executive wants to see made into a movie, and 98% of that effort goes unrewarded (excepting nooky scenarios). Throw in the amount of time everyone spends fighting traffic to go to lunch meetings or meetings at other studios, and the dollar value of this wasted productivity, if converted to cash, would provide every American with free health care forever.
And don’t tell me this filtering system works. Most films stink and most films lose money – a lot of money. It’s the blockbusters and occasional sleepers that generate Hollywood profits.
Here’s how I propose fixing this dysfunctional system.
The first thing that must happen is a complete overhaul of management-labor relations. Take a look at Southwest Airlines. The company’s founder, Herb Kelleher, knew that if he made his employees feel like partners, he’d avoid the labor issues all the airlines had. So while we’ve heard all about labor actions at the other airlines, have you ever heard about a Southwest strike? Never. And guess what? 79% of them are unionized. This is a direct result of Southwest’s attitude towards employees. A happy employee performs above and beyond expectations. That translates into a better product.
Hollywood has to transform its antagonistic employees into partners. How?
As mentioned in my earlier articles, the fear inherent in the system results in the hiring of expensive talent in order to hedge bureaucrats against the loss of their job. So while there are talented “A-list” people worth every penny they are paid, it leaves a sizable talent pool underemployed. I call this pool the Bridesmaids (or Bridesgrooms, as the case may be). The Bridesmaids have the following in common: 1) Exceptional and proven talent, 2) Never had a movie produced or TV pilot go to series, 3) Stay in the game because they are so close to having a movie or series produced, 4) Are paid well, 5) Are consummate professionals and great team members.
There are dozens of these Bridesmaids.
The other pool is the Journeymen (or Journeywomen, see above parenthetical). They share all the traits of the Bridesmaids, but they haven’t yet had a shot at a pilot, have sold a pitch here and there, and have a modest rewriting or TV series staff career going. They are highly reliable, work quickly, and are hungry in a big way for the big dream.
The studios need to return to the system in place in the mid 20th-century with these pools of talent as their cornerstones. Hire anywhere between 50 and 100 Bridesmaid and Journeymen screenwriters. Filter out those that specialize in self-indulgent personal crap. Find the people who can deliver. Throw in a dozen young new talents with original voices. Keep the truly best A-list writers. Give them each an office in a central location, where they can all mingle, bounce ideas off of each other, bitch, moan, and do what they do best – create.
Give them weekend retreats at a nice resort with the marketing department. Educate the writers on how marketing works. Yes, we know success is random, but marketing is a mélange of science and art and when it works, it really works. Bring the writer into the process.
Oh, and pay those writers. Pay them well by American standards: $150,000 per year, plus WGA benefits, increases per inflation rate. If the film they wrote gets made, a bonus equal to 2% of the production budget. And 1% of gross box office. Yep, you heard me. A gross point (I can hear the screaming in the corridors of power now). Why? Two reasons:
1) The total amount of money spent under this scenario will be a fraction of what is currently spent under the broken system. 2) It changes what is currently a highly antagonistic employer-employee relationship into a partnership. Everyone’s interests are aligned.
Yeah, I’m a writer, so I’m biased. But that doesn’t invalidate the argument. Right now, most writers live in a world of hope. They waste productivity. Writers are regularly subjected to free rewrites, exacerbating their generalized rage disorders. The chances of a movie getting made are minuscule, writers know this, so they’re really only interested in getting paid out on their project. Total dollars earned are not reflective of total effort exerted.
Next, the studios choose what movies they want to make. They set up the parameters. The studio bigwigs are being paid a lot of money. With great salary must come great responsibility. They want a thriller? Choose a writer and have him write a friggin’ thriller. Don’t waste time hearing a pitch. Make a decision. The writer’s an employee. He gets it. Let him write something cool. If he doesn’t deliver, pass the project off to another writer to rewrite or kill it.
Can you imagine the levels of productivity a studio would see if a writer is handed a project that the studio has already approved of, that has a higher chance of being produced than under the current system, with a massive life-changing back-end as the carrot?
I’ve also just saved the industry hundreds of millions of dollars since there will never again be a labor action, because any writer who complains about this level of treatment has bigger problems than anyone can ever solve. The directors never strike, and SAG/AFTRA is such a cluster f**k that they couldn’t even mount a strike if they wanted to.
Moving on: When the studio is happy with a script, THEN a producer comes in. The studio selects the producer who is the best fit based on their prior experience. Producer doesn’t like the project? They can’t find the emotional connection to the material? It’s not something they want to do? Then they should pass. They shouldn’t fear being cut out of the system. They’ve been selected because of their past experience. They can take on another project. In the meantime, they are free to develop projects on their own with any writer they wish. Studios can provide various producers a modest discretionary development fund. Not too much. Enough to handle 4 or 5 scripts at a time. That forces the producer to concentrate on the material they love, enhancing their productivity.
Finally, allocate a minimum of fifteen percent of each year’s budgets to new producers, new writers, and new film-makers. You can’t innovate without new blood.
This system also eliminates 90% of the bureaucracy. Executives have been given impossible jobs that provide little room for advancement. Now I’ve seen people advance, but it’s about as frequent as the screenwriter who gets a movie made. Their job isn’t about getting movies made. Their job is about keeping the job. Who wants that kind of job?
This is not to diss the execs. Many of them are intelligent, highly capable, and enjoy movies. The very best can, and should, become producers. I believe that those that have talent can, and should, be allowed to utilize that talent in a way that allows something tangible to be created. That way, their skills are put to tangible use, instead of them being wasted in a bureaucracy.
Next time: Fixing Television.