DVD, tech money on the line

A sense of gloom lingers as the Writers Guild of America and producers prepare to begin contract talks on Sept. 19, with a prevailing sense that the sides are so far apart — and talking at such cross-purposes — as to render the prospect of a deal virtually impossible.

So perhaps a third-party appraisal is in order, from someone whose only vested interest is the fear of watching the TV monstrosities that would be unleashed (hastily assembled reality shows, overseas imports, even more things hosted by Ryan Seacrest) if Hollywood’s production machinery should actually grind to a halt.

First, a little recap on how we got here: Writers feel that they left a substantial amount of money on the table in past negotiations, having failed (along with everybody else, including the guilds representing actors and directors, whose contracts lapse next year) to anticipate the explosion of the DVD market. Now they want to recoup some of that lost residual income, at a time when the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers says the DVD spigot is beginning to run dry while rising production costs offset gaudy theatrical grosses.

The real sticking points involve new technologies such as content for the Internet and cellphones, with talent wanting to ensure they don’t get screwed, in their eyes, on sharing in that. But how the hell does anybody determine what’s equitable, since at this point, that revenue stream is still largely speculative? (In the late 1990s, the Internet was rather sardonically hailed as a “zero-billion-dollar business,” meaning zero now, billions eventually.)

In some respects, the questions hovering over these negotiations mirror other confounding issues that have bedeviled us for ages, such as the U.S. tax code. Some conservatives advocate a flat tax, where everyone pays a percentage and all loopholes are closed. Yet while that concept is appealing in its simplicity, just because the result would be to un-employ lots of tax auditors and accountants, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily fair, much less politically realistic.

Similarly, writers and producers have found that the prospect of negotiating three-year deals becomes particularly scary in an age when change comes so rapidly, stoking anxiety that terms agreed to now would be moot — and potentially penalize one side or the other — long before 2010 rolls around. Studios have called for a full-blown study of the industry, but that sounds more like a stalling tactic than an enterprise that will yield definitive answers, especially if you go back and read all the exhaustive studies conducted in the past and see just how prescient (or more often, not) they were.

Nobody wants to return to the bargaining table and go through this ritual every six months, so the discussion then turns to the question of escalators — building adjustable mechanisms into a deal that would reward talent with a slice of profits should the industry mature (or evolve) along unexpected lines. Sounds great, except that opens the door to questions about trusting studios to fairly report “profits,” bringing to mind the Mel Brooks joke about how the studios have “The money is here; we dare you to find” etched in ancient Hebrew into the pillars of their lots.

Because there has never been a lot of trust among the parties, the studios didn’t help themselves in hindsight by negotiating what appears to have been such a favorable deal on DVDs. As a response, the writers ushered in leadership that came into power talking tough, raising expectations of settling old scores, although many members are doubtless as preoccupied with mortgages and tuitions they must pay today as benefits that might be accrued years from now.

In the old days, MCA’s Lew Wasserman was the guy who would bring everyone together and find middle ground, but thus far no mogul has stepped up to that challenge, and it’s not clear whether talent would be receptive if one of them did.

So donning that hat for a moment (seriously, must I do everything around here?), the only solution would appear to be a deal that creates wiggle room for recognizing returns from new technology, with mutually agreed-upon safeguards regarding how to measure that relatively untrammeled terrain.

For some this will sound naive and to others a trifle complicated, but that’s unavoidable. Because right now, after years in which TV has been awash in forensic criminologists, Hollywood’s only escape from labor rigor mortis might require creating a boom in careers as forensic accountants.

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