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It’s About More than Just Money … It’s About the Industry’s Future

Content Insider #819 – Quick Work

By Andy Marken – andy@markencom.com

Source – “The Wrath of Man,” MGM

“I can do in two days what you wish you could have done in two years.” – H, “The Wrath of Man,” MGM, 2021

We wrote this piece three, four times.  

Could have probably done it in a third/half the time had we used ChatGPT, but what the h*** fun would that have been?

Generative AI, in all of its iterations/possibilities, wasn’t the focal point of the writers’ strike.

They just wanted simple things … better pay, improved working conditions and compensation for the extended life of the streaming projects they produced.

They had asked for long-term residuals back during the 2007 strike but AMPTP said it wasn’t
worth discussing because the internet was never going to be something that could be used for
delivering content to people at home.

Oh yes, they wanted to be paid for those times when bosses said “Here, make a few minor changes in the script” and to be recognized that they were more than easily replaceable keyboards/pens for hire.

The timing of the strike sucked for studio/streamer/theater executives because they were facing challenges of their own.

Wall Street and shareholders were expecting them to produce eye-watering profits for them and things weren’t going as planned because things had changed.

Wall Street had been spinning the glory story over the years that:

  • Movies would kill live theater/vaudeville
  • Pay TV was the death toll for movie houses
  • Streaming would be the crushing blow for both of them

Streaming has influenced out-of-home and in-home entertainment.

That meant an upsurge in demand for more creative products from people who made their living developing/producing/delivering entertainment on screens.  

Golden Platter – The content creation industry was running on all cylinders to deliver an exceptional menu of video stories people could pick from, sit back and enjoy.  The serving trays were overloaded with content for every taste.  

According to IMDb, 22,900+ film/TV show titles were produced last year or more than 62 hour-long projects a day.

And still, people say there’s nothing for them to watch!

To meet folks’ entertainment hunger, intermediaries answered the call:

  • Theater owners offered more expensive tickets/concessions and dumb tricks (our opinion) like “bring your pet to the movie” as long as it wears a doggie diaper (https://tinyurl.com/5yxtwrnt
  • Theater owners failed to acknowledge the fact that ticket sales have slid since 2002 and perhaps they should address the consumers’ wants/needs rather than their shareholders
  • Pay TV curators rode their Pegasus into the ground:
    •  Ad clusters of 20 minutes for every 40 minutes of entertainment
    • Bundle prices that rose to exceed $200/mo. (U.S.) 
    • Mundane line up of reality, game, adventure and unscripted stuff that only added to their bottom lines 
  • Studios/streamers all jumped into the pool with their own service saturating the market – 113M U.S. households out of 131.2M total – and then raising fees for their “more” valuable content

Then, to show Wall Street and stockholders they were doing their best to maximize profits, they took even more positive action.

Territory Battle – At times, it felt like everyone in the M&E industry was a Viking attacking everyone, including each other, to help as many people transition to Valhalla while they battled to be victorious.  

They:

  • Cut, reprioritized projects
  • Thinned the ranks/budgets
  • Debilitated their past/future
  • Squeezed disparate properties into exceptional bundles
  • Double-downed on franchises, sequels, prequels that had worked in the past
  • Named, renamed, renamed their streaming services

They were heralded by Wall Street for their aggressive, positive actions.

They were “punished” by their firm’s board of directors and compensation committees with salaries that were still north of $10M (https://tinyurl.com/2s3nkyxn), despite the fact that their stock performance had dropped on the average of 40 percent.

Things have been getting tough for streaming bosses since the surge of new subscribers has cooled and advertising revenues haven’t flooded in as folks were hoping.

In addition, the people who create the content have said it’s time to be paid and recognized for their professional work.

In other words, they needed a break.

For them that meant going to a retreat with fellow media/tech executives who could identify with the stress they’ve all been under.

Bro Time – Planes from the far corners of the media/tech industries brought their bosses to the annual Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley or, as some called the event the billionaires’ summer camp; but it has become a must event for senior executives to exchange information on the changing industry.  

Again this year, the Allen & Company’s July Sun Valley Conference – the summer camp for billionaires – was well attended by the market leaders and ultra-senior management.  

They’ve been under a lot of pressure to turn things around; and it was a good opportunity to exchange ideas, experiences and commiserate with each other.  

They returned refreshed with new ideas and a new commitment to shape the industry into their vision of what people really want … and need.

Harried Task – The video content industry is in the midst of significant and dynamic change that industry executives have to stay on top of in addition to addressing “little” things like macroeconomic changes as well as shareholders and Wall Street analyst expectations.  It’s tough.  

It won’t be easy.  

There’s a lot of uncertainty facing them for at least for the next few years.

The industry – and the world – is in the middle of a difficult macroeconomic shift.  

Wall Street analysts are expecting them to carry out new streaming strategies that will bolster stock valuations.

If that wasn’t enough, the 11,500 members of the WGA (Writers Guild of America) – the people who write TV, film, theater, animation, videogames, books and more – decided for the first time in 15 years to take a stand on minor issues like a living wage, “normalized” working hours, minimal staffing, viewer-based residuals and guardrails on the use of generative AI.

As one of the striking writers said shortly after the strike began, “As artists, creatives and storytellers, this may be our best and final opportunity to refuse to return to business as ‘normal,’ because as we learned when the world shut down, ‘normal wasn’t working’ and if we want things to change, it’s now or never.”

That wasn’t a problem for the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) until the other guilds and unions – Cinematographer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild, DGA (which quickly reached an agreement with AMPTP), SAG-AFTRA. IATSE and AFL-CIO — voiced their support.

It still wasn’t a serious problem for AMPTP because the expansion of streaming consumer-appealing content was being produced in virtually every country of the world. 

AMPTP now had options until the WGGB (Writers’ Guild of Great Britian) and UK members of fellow Federation of Entertainment Unions, including Equity, Bectu, the Musicians’ Union and the NUJ voiced their support.

They were joined by creative organizations in more than 35 countries who drew their line in the sand for writers, actors, directors, crew, musicians and others, noting that gains in America would mean progress for content creators everywhere.  

Critical Point – The significant uptick in demand for video stories along with increasing budget (time/money) pressures and looming technology has created a lot of uncertainty throughout the industry and many feel now is the time address and resolve a growing number of issues/concerns.  

Creatives feel the strike was an inflection point for how filmmakers everywhere will be viewed and treated in the industry for years to come.

The financial issues are important because filmmakers at every level are often considered by studio/streamer executives as part timers and contract workers.  However, they need/deserve long-range payments for their creative works which the studios and streamers will monetize for years to come.

Writers’ room issues are important because while the industry voices support of diversity and tomorrow’s creatives, they need to be trained, guided and given valuable work experience assistance to become tomorrow’s filmmakers.    

Accidents Happen – The helicopter accident in 1982 that took the life of Vic Morrow and two children remains a grim reminder that video content development and production is a serious business and can often be deadly.  There are no shortcuts that can be taken; but fortunately, most of the accidents are minor scrapes and cuts.  

Creating a film, a show that grabs and holds an audience’s interest, isn’t easy and needs to involve all of the people in the project from beginning to end.

Even the most seemingly mundane segment must be planned, rehearsed, analyzed, adjusted, practiced and worked down to the smallest detail by everyone in the project crew.

Time is critical and it takes what it takes and yes … time is money!  

A relatively mild fight scene is rehearsed in meticulous detail and still … stuff happens. 

Bending the guidelines of crew safety, security, part-timing people and long grueling hours like commonly executed Fraturday (Friday through sometime on Saturday) shoots have seriously injured and cost the lives of more than a few crew members–all in the name of budget (money and time) and needs to be addressed globally.

All of these issues are important for the industry and people who make video content/stories have to be addressed.

People want to rest – even the boss – and enjoy content at theaters, at home or on the screen in their hand.

But perhaps the greatest issue the two sides have to address head-on will be the role AI will play in the future of the content industry.

Studios and indies have created libraries of AI and automation gone awry and a miniscule number of films where there has been a good, beneficial outcome.

Oscar Wilde’s observation that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life” isn’t a fundamental law of the universe.

But it has withstood the test of time.

Vast Unknown – Generative AI represents a new frontier for the content creation industry. Cutting corners and steps without human emotion and logic involved can be as scary as Flix Baumgartner stepping out of Red Bull Stratos for a two-mile free fall from space.  Freeing AI in the film/show industry without guardrails can have disastrous results.

We can’t even imagine what comes next when AI is widely available/used.

We adjusted to the advent of electricity, motor vehicles, internet, atomic bomb.

Can we do the same with generative AI?  

During Disney’s earnings call earlier this year, CEO Bob Iger emphasized that the company isn’t shying away from technology. 

“AI developments represent some pretty interesting opportunities for us,” he said. “In fact, we’re already starting to use AI to create some efficiencies and ultimately to better serve consumers.”

He also noted that it doesn’t come without its challenges and uncertainties.

Iger admitted that it could be extremely difficult to manage but assured analysts and shareholders that the firm’s IT and legal teams were working to come to grips with it and was certain AI would help the firm create efficiencies and provide better customer service.

We envision two applications:

  • Developing new, unique, original ideas that could get an automatic greenlight 
  • Delivering storylines/initial scripts for long-running formula shows

AI and studios/networks/streamers rely a lot on viewer data to recommend what you might want to watch next or to percolate the next blockbuster or audience must see entertainment.  

Put AI to work to develop the plotline and script skeleton for the next sure thing, pass it to the writers’ room to craft into a sure fire-tentpole or audience/advertising sure thing.

A whole level of upper/middle management salaries/space/time could be moved to the company’s bottom line because “the data said it would work.”

Quality Matters – Somehow, at some level, you just know when you read or see a great story unfold because it touches all of your senses.  The more it influences/touches you, the harder it is to write and that requires humans touching humans.  

Once the toughest work is done (coming up with the idea), the writers can come into the room and polish, enhance the storyline to move it from a tentpole to blockbuster–the actual writing, rewriting and adding the unique mind game twists that really bring a story to life. 

You know, the stuff that people are really good at – emotions, non-linear thinking that make shows/movies memorable.

Long Running – Shows that have had a long run on television and now on streaming have a flow and rhythm that resonates with their audiences. They also have lots of data, including viewer response/reaction that can probably be used to develop segment themes and sketch outlines.  Perhaps these are a safe place to use AI and a training ground for tomorrow’s script writers.  

Of course, then there are mainstay programs like Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: SVU and Belisarius Production’s NCIS.

These and other bromide series have enough “history” that some derivation of ChatGPT – even in the hands of a studio executive – could probably easily (and quickly) knock out passable segments or an entire season of these long-running series.

Here would be a great opportunity for studios to press forward with their diversity efforts as well as train the next generation of screenwriters.

In other words, not just tools used by writers but tools that could replace some show writers and, but more importantly, prepare the next generation of filmmaking professionals.

However, AMPTP isn’t really interested in dealing with the issue of AI because no one honestly knows how the technology will develop and how they will be able to use it in the future to develop, enhance and monetize future video stories.  

But making the tough calls and making the right decisions are some of the main reasons the guys (and gals) in the executive suite make the big bucks – protecting the people who create the product and profit while providing the tools and leeway that will ensure the company, studio, streamer is even stronger than when they were given the keys to the front door(s).

They know how to deliver for all of the stakeholders because as H reassured the folks in The Wrath of Man, “I spent a lot of time at supermarkets. Shopping.”

Andy Markenandy@markencom.com – is an author of more than 800 articles on management, marketing, communications, industry trends in media and entertainment, consumer electronics, software and applications. An internationally recognized marketing/communications consultant with a broad range of technical and industry expertise–especially in storage, storage management and film/video production fields; he has an extended range of relationships with business, industry trade press, online media and industry analysts/consultants.

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