Striking writers try other realms

In 1988 many writers used the 22 weeks of the strike to work on novels and plays. Today the action is in writing for the web, videogames and graphic novels.

Some see these scribes as pioneers in the brave new-media world, but there’s a paradox in their efforts. While the WGA strike is largely about pay in new media, all roads lead back to the old media.

  • In the world of graphic novels, the pay is low. But scribes can land bigger paydays if the graphic novel is sold to a studio for a feature film or TV adaptation.

  • Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick aimed to create a new economic model for production with their much-touted web-exclusive series “Quarterlife.” But in fact the show was a money-losing proposition until NBC bought the series for broadcast.n Though the videogame biz rakes in $10 billion annually, writers get paid a relative pittance — and most vidgame publishers are openly hostile to the idea of unions.

But amid the strike, film and TV scribes are eager to open up new avenues or to repurpose existing work, even if the pay isn’t nearly as good.

“A lot of screenplays and teleplays are going to get dusted off,” predicts Scott Agostoni, an agent at William Morris who represents comicbook publishers and scribes. “They’re finding a new marketplace for them.”

While all of these new outlets will enhance the writers’ range of skills and may help them hone material, the not-so-rosy truth is that they either (a) do not pay nearly as much, or (b) still hold uncertain potential.

Each alternative also presents a specific set of challenges and upsides for the scribes.

THE WEB

Internet humor sites have generated some work for comedy writers, and in recent months there have been some ambitious efforts to mount syndicated serialized dramas in short webisode bites, a la “Prom Queen.”

Internet giants MySpace and YouTube have been billed as the digital wave of the future, but they’ve yet to answer the question of how content producers can make money off of them — short of ad revenue-sharing deals that will take months and many millions of downloads to generate any real coin. And while the WGA is seeking jurisdiction over Internet work, the immediate concerns for the websites are over traditional TV and film content that is made available for downloading or free streaming.

“Quarterlife” preemed Nov. 11 as a twice-weekly series of eight-minute episodes debuting exclusively on MySpace and then moving to Quarterlife.com, among other sites. Herskovitz and Zwick last week pacted with NBC to run the second window of the show early next year in six hourlong installments.

Herskovitz, who is prexy of the Producers Guild of America, said they made a point of hammering out agreements with the WGA, DGA and SAG to cover the creative talent on the show. Those pacts were primarily focused on initial compensation but did include provisions for payment of residuals for future exploitation of the production, Herskovitz said.

“Quarterlife” is being produced at a fraction of the cost of a network series, and in turn NBC is paying a lower license fee for the show than any other series on the air.

MySpace does not pay a fee for its exclusive first window of the show. What’s more, Zwick and Herskovitz, who have been deficit-financing the show, say the NBC sale still won’t make them break even, although they are confident they will recoup their money.

“We’ve broken the cardinal rule of the film business: Never spend your own money on your projects,” Herskovitz says.

The production cost of the 36 segs running 8-10 minutes, or about six hours of programming, came in at about about $500,000, industry sources estimate.

Herskovitz declined to comment on any of the financial details of “Quarterlife,” other than to say that it was financed by a combination of coin from the duo’s Bedford Falls production company, private investors and some advertising dollars for product integration, including a deal with Pepsi.

“We’re trying to create a new model (for episodic production) but it’s just a transitional model,” Herskovitz says. “I’m hoping that the Internet can (eventually) provide enough revenue that people can survive making shows for the Internet … We feel that this is our way of saying, ‘Can you create something very ambitious for the Internet that has the same possibility for the same kind of adoption and passion (among TV viewers) that would bring in significant advertising dollars?’ “

– Cynthia Littleton

VIDEOGAMES

Vidgames may be one of the prime reasons network TV doesn’t draw as many viewers as it used to, but it also represents a new market for screenwriters.

While the WGA has made no secret that it would like to eventually cover vidgame writing, it hasn’t pushed the issue yet and is allowing members to work on games during the strike.

“It has been an interesting shift,” says one tenpercenter who focuses on vidgames. “The literary agents are now saying, ‘Why don’t we get our clients over there during the strike?’ even though in the past they thought the money wasn’t good enough or the work is too demanding.”

Though the videogame biz was well established in 1988, it wasn’t a serious option for writers during that strike. But the past decade has seen a quiet revolution in which story has become significantly more important for vidgames.

Virtually every videogame now has a writer who develops the narrative and writes the dialogue. Even in a plot-free game like “Madden NFL,” someone has to come up with the sportscasters’ quips.

In some cases, development studios have an inhouse writer or writers. The “Halo” games, for instance, have been written by staffers at Bungie Studios.

Increasingly, however, publishers are hiring Hollywood screenwriters.

“Twenty years ago, games were all about the engineers,” recalls veteran vidgame writer Flint Dille. “Then as budgets went up, they realized they need designers and some actual art. Today, it’s unusual if a writer is not brought into the process at some point.”

It’s hardly lucrative work compared to a major feature assignment or spec sale. Typical fee is $50,000 and only rarely do publishers go after bigger names or more experienced writers who also get involved in the design process and might command low six figures.

Game scribes are almost never asked to come up with an original idea. Instead, they’re brought onto a vidgame already in the works to write a detailed story arc and flesh out the characters. In addition, they have to write all the dialogue that is spoken during the game, which can easily add up to thousands of lines.

“Sometimes they make the game and then realize, ‘Wait a minute, we need a story!’ ” says Marianne Krawczyk, who has written all the games in the successful “God of War” series. “Sometimes I give notes on a story that exists and see what I can make work. Sometimes I come in at the beginning and all they have is a one-sentence idea.”

Assignments can stretch as long as six months, though the writer isn’t working full time on that one project. There might be a few weeks of writing, followed by some animation and programming, after which the writer comes back to do some more work.

But because of the overall lengthy time commitment, TV scribes usually don’t pick up vidgame assignments. Most are current or aspiring feature writers with credits in genres like sci-fi or action-adventure and at least some experience playing games.

The WGA has no jurisdiction in videogames, though publishers can choose to make pension and health contributions. The Guild, however, did establish a videogame writing prize for the upcoming WGA Awards, a move interpreted by many as a first sign toward greater involvement in the business.

Organizing vidgame writing would likely be tough, though. The big publishers are hostile toward unions, and successfully beat back an attempt by SAG two years ago to establish residuals for actors who do voiceover work. One of the main reasons: Developers, the folks who do most of the creative work on videogames, aren’t currently unionized.

“Over the next 20 years,” predicts Dille, “I’m certain some kind of union situation is going to evolve for this industry, including the writers.”

– Ben Fritz

COMICBOOKS/GRAPHIC NOVELS

“I’m lucky that my phone started ringing from editors at Marvel and DC as soon as the threat of the strike materialized,” wrote Brian K. Vaughn, a scribe for “Lost,” on his blog before hitting the picket lines.

Vaughn, whose graphic novel “Ex Machina” is being developed by New Line for the bigscreen, adds, “I know a few creators are sometimes annoyed by carpetbagging movie-television writers swooping into comics to steal ‘their’ jobs, but film-TV writers have been enormously generous about letting me into their world, and I think we should return the favor.”

Long before the strike began, Joss Whedon was penning comics, launching a new series of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” comicbooks for Dark Horse.

Since the strike began, agents and managers have been encouraging clients to adapt unsold scripts into graphic novels or come up with new ideas for comics.

“The upside is it will give a writer who is experiencing a lot of downtime the chance to do some R&D on something where their idea may have been overreaching or didn’t work,” Agostoni says.

The idea is that once business resumes, scribes will then be able to shop both a finished comic and a script.

The strategy already has worked for Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who penned and produced episodes of the first two seasons of “Lost” and now serves as a co-exec producer on NBC’s “Medium.” He fronted the cost of his own comicbook, “The Middleman,” through Viper Comics and the rights have been picked up by ABC Family.

Similarly, Michael Dougherty (“Superman Returns”) is turning to graphic novels, and Marc Guggenheim, who has penned episodes of “The Practice” and “Brothers & Sisters,” is writing issues of Marvel’s “Blade” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

But such work is largely tactical. The big bucks come not from writing the comic but when it gets optioned by a studio or TV network.

“They’re not going to make anything from the book,” Agostini says. “They do the comicbook so they have something that’s pre-branded to sell to the marketplace once the strike is over.”

– Marc Graser

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