Friday, July 01, 2011

How much do writers really make on DVD sales?

Happy July! Let’s kick off the month with some Friday Questions.

Drew gets us started:

You mentioned the props for Cheers a few weeks back. I was thinking that being in charge of props and wardrobe has to be a nightmare. If there is a scene with a birthday cake, are their multiple copies in case an actor drops it? Are their multiples of the actor's shirt in case the cake is dropped on said shirt?

The answer to your question is yes. There are multiples of wardrobe and props. And that exact example happened on the first show I ever directed. In fact, it happened on the first scene. It was an episode of WINGS involving a birthday cake and Crystal Bernard drops it accidentally on camera. The good news is (a) we had another cake, and (b) that blooper appeared on Dick Clark’s blooper show for years. I made more on that clip then I ever did from all the DVD sales of CHEERS and MASH. Which neatly leads us to the next question:

Paul Nikkel asks:

I recently purchased the entire 11 season DVD collection for Cheers and am enjoying reliving old memories. I always look for episodes that you and David have written. My question is how do royalties work for the writers on DVD's? With my purchase can you now afford that new BMW you have been looking at or do I need to get 10 of my closest friends to purchase the series so you can buy a Starbucks Latte?

I’d need a hundred of your best friends to buy the full collection before my royalties could buy me a cup of coffee at 7-11’s. It’s a joke. Hopefully, in the last contract, by gaining a toehold in streaming video, writers will eventually make even a small portion of what we deserve. Or I’m just dreaming. 

Meanwhile, DVD sales have plummeted.  The major studios are crying.  Boo fucking hoo.  

From DyHardMET:

Say that you're an established writer on an established series (into at least season 2 or 3) it more difficult to have to write for a new, unestablished regular character than it is to write for the established characters?

It’s much more difficult. The more you write for a character and hear the actor perform him the more you learn his strengths and weaknesses. With a new character it’s a crapshoot.

If a character is being introduced that will appear in several episodes or become a regular (like Rebecca on CHEERS), it’s best to have either the showrunners or a trusted staff member write the first episode or two and let the other writers use that as a template.

Glen & Les Charles wrote the episode of CHEERS that introduced Rebecca Howe. David and I wrote episode three or four (“I On Sports”) but we had Glen & Les’ draft to give us a roadmap.

It also helps if you’re writing to a specific actor. In the case of Charles Winchester on MASH, David Ogden Stiers had been hired before a script was written. In that case, David and I wrote the first episode featuring Charles. It was not the episode that introduced him. Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum were assigned that one but they had our script for reference.

And Finally, RyderDA asks:

I've noticed that in a comedy or drama series, occasionally, guest actors (in large or small parts) drop in, and "click", fitting in instantly, making the series new and fresh. Then they come back, and stick around. The most obvious example of this currently is the ever-growing cast of GLEE. I'm wondering how a you as a producer/director/writer handle this without letting it get out of hand and allowing the cast to balloon (like happened on E.R., the West Wing, Ally McBeal, etc), and how the principles of the series respond to it.

If an outside character breaks out it’s a true gift from God. Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim on TAXI and Michael Emerson as Ben on LOST are just a couple that come quickly to mind.

But there are definite considerations – the budget being the first. Can you afford to add another actor? It’s easier to justify on established hit shows.

Then, as you brought up, you have to deal with your current cast. Chances are they don’t feel they get enough screen time as it is and now they’ll have even less. Things can get a little frosty on the set for awhile depending on the cast. I suppose it’s a little easier on hour dramas where you can just kill cast members off. This keeps the budget down and certainly curtails any grousing. I guess on GLEE they could kill off some of the kids. They could also just graduate them but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

What’s your question? Happy holiday weekend. Please drive safely. And don’t make your own fireworks.


Caleb the Curious Cat said...

Just a follow-up on residuals. We know you don't get diddily-squat on DVDs, but how does it work with syndication of a show you've written? For instance MASH and Cheers seem to be running continually now for what seems like forever and Volunteers pops up every now and again (and when it does, it runs a dozen or more times for about two weeks before disappearing again). Are residuals on a sliding scale payment-wise the further away from first run or are they constantly the same no matter the time span?


Roger Owen Green said...

So did your Dodgers checks bounce?

gottacook said...

"They [the Glee students] could also just graduate": Last week there were reports that this may indeed happen at the end of next season; see I suppose the idea is to be more realistic than, say, Room 222, whose high school students appeared to be nearing age 30 by the time the series ended. Given that this is Glee, though, it's funny that they're considering being realistic about anything at all.

LazyGirl said...

I just finished doing a full rewatch of "Cheers", and now I'm a few seasons in on "Wings" (thank you Netflix). You've probably earned one latte in residuals from me...well, maybe just the foam.

I'm really enjoying seeing these characters again. It's crazy to see 'unknowns' pop up in small roles on these shows who later scored recurring roles (Marcia Cross, Megan Mullaly, Abraham Benrubi, etc.).

My question is that times have changed so much since then with political 'correctness'. It's really obvious on some of the earlier episodes of "Cheers" (don't get me wrong: I think at times we've lost our sense of humor, and I think the first season of "Cheers" is perfection). But I'm wondering if there's anything you recall writing that you regret now, because of the way sensibilities have changed.

Sorry if this question has already been asked and answered.

Bruce said...

Sorry Ken but I just don't see why you guys feel you should get residuals at all. You got paid for your work and you got paid for all the crap that didn't make it to syndication and ended up in the trash. Software "writers" have their code run millions of times a day and every time it runs the company that paid them makes money but they don't see a dime. I really don't get it.

Maybe if the deal was you get nothin' if it bombs you could expect a big continuous payday for work that for whatever reason becomes a hit. Can't remember how many times I've read on this blog how really well written funny material just doesn't get recognized and make it "big" and nobody can figure out why, but I'm sure the writer got paid, and the actor got paid, just the company that paid hosed.

I'm just saying, I don't have a dog in this fight, anyway love your blog.

Please Don't Eat Me said...

Gosh, Bruce, you sound just like a studio exec.

selection7 said...

Yeah, Bruce, the binary "Did they get paid? Yes or No" is a pretty low standard for determining if they were compensated fairly. Low enough to be useless really. But to debate the subject fully would require questions neither you or I know the absolute answer to with regard to free market and economic systems in general.

A short response (albeit unprovable) that doesn't require debating the merits of our current economic system would be that had the writers known back then that these things would be valuable, they would have used their positioning in the free market to demand and receive a significant piece of that pie. That they didn't end up getting it in real life is purely a result of neither side predicting the importance of DVD sales, resulting in the studios lucking out by default, not that the writers weren't worth a bigger piece of the pie based on supply and demand.

That doesn't mean it's illegal for the studios to keep that larger share of profits (though I bet there were lawsuits), just that writers and others involved now recognize that's not going to be acceptable in the future, and their value to the industry will enforce that position.

DaveMB said...

Here's a question I could ask John Rogers directly on his blog, but he is just getting up to speed after a hiatus and I think you would also have an interesting and certainly informed answer.

In last week's Leverage Eric Stoltz, a rather big-time actor, had a significant role that wasn't credited. When and why does this happen? Does it have anything to do with the rules about unions and people getting paid? I know that if an Equity stage actor wants to take a role in a non-Equity production, e.g., community theatre, they do it under an assumed name. Is this something similar?

WV: "pitilati", the plural of "pitilatus"

Jim S said...

Some baseball questions for Ken. If you were sill covering the Dodgers, how would you handle their current troubles? Are you able to slam whomever youw want, or is that just burning a bridge?

Do you get more excited and "pop" a little more when you get to call a game when a red hot pitcher like Justin Verlander pitches, or are all games like your children - you love them equally?

Anonymous said...

@Ken: It was three contracts ago that we got streaming/online renting residuals agreed to (the first John Wells presidency). The strike year was concerned with electronic sell-through and made-for-internet productions (and, ultimately, giving away residuals on EST on pre-2008 programs). The last contract was more about shoring up our pension and health.

@Bruce: The theory behind residuals is that the initial payment is for the use of the script in its initial format (an episode of a TV series broadcast over the air and rerun within a certain time period). Residual payments are payments for uses of that script outside of the initial format.

It's theoretically designed to benefit producers and studios. Instead of having to pay for all potential uses of a script up front, they pay for use in the initial format and then pay for each additional use as they happen (and, frequently, as a percentage of what the producer receives in payment for those additional markets).

Residuals are effectively just pre-negotiated payments for re-use in ancillary markets.

SB said...

Got a much more basic answer for you, Bruce. The reason writers feel they should "get" residuals is simply because they have negotiated for them. Over decades, WGA members (along with members of other creative unions) have fought to get these provisions in contracts, including through some heated strikes that put careers in jeopardy.

Software code writers always have the same option if they want. They can organize and demand compensation such as residuals. But they'll have to put their asses on the line to fight for it.

Brother Boomerang said...

Dear Bruce,

I don't work in the industry but I believe writers should be compensated when their work is shown again and again. For example if I designed the NIKE trademark and no one bought NIKE and I got $10 then it is fair. however if I designed the NIKE trademark and they may 100 billion dollars and use my trade mark to become a powerful corporation with hundreds of thousands of employees and many resources is it asking too much to be compensated more than the original $10 due to my work being used?

If thee wasn't an agreement I guess i'd be screwed but I think it is easy enough to say the creator deserves some credit.

(Even though the people putting the shoes together, the sales men, and others are doing all the work)

John said...

Kind of spinnig of the "working with a new character" question, here's one about you and David,s Season 1 episode "The Boys in the Bar" -- looking at how the characters developed over the next several years, do you think if the show had been written for Season 3, 4 or later that Cliff would have been the one making the loudest noise about who was coming into the bar instead of Norm?

Other than when the Hungry Heifer closed, Norm's character as he developed became a person who didn't care about anything, except where his next beer was coming from, while Cliff was the one who tended to pontificate about things he had no clue about. But when the show aired, Cliff was just becomming a major part of the cast and was acting much more "normal", while Norm and the other characters werre still new to the audience and the staff (since the show normlly cycles in syndication from Season 11 back to Season 1, it's just a little jarring to go from the "As long as I've got my beer and a tab going I'm happy" Norm Peterson in the later show back to this Norm, who gets pretty fired up about keeping gays out of thr bar).

Steve said...

My Friday question, inspired by your discussing having written one of the early shows featuring the character of Rebecca Howe on Cheers: Can you explain what happened to her character over the course of the final seasons. She lost about 50 IQ points and became quite pathetic, whereas she started as a smart, tough, businesswoman (albeit with some quirks and vulnerabilities to leave room for comedy). Was this devolution just a function of trying to go for more comedy, or because the actress was better at more kooky material, or what?

Her change in personality seemed to be more drastic than most, so I've always wondered what the planning behind it was like.

Marcel said...

As a software "writer" myself I think the difference is in level of involvement. Most software jobs in companies correspond more to the guys who do CGI in movies or cameramen or whatever, who as far as I know don't get residuals either, and NOT to the writer.

The guy who had the idea for the software on the other hand probably has deals in place that give him some percentage of the earnings, too. This corresponds to the writer position here.

gwangung said...

As a software "writer" myself I think the difference is in level of involvement. Most software jobs in companies correspond more to the guys who do CGI in movies or cameramen or whatever, who as far as I know don't get residuals either, and NOT to the writer.

The guy who had the idea for the software on the other hand probably has deals in place that give him some percentage of the earnings, too. This corresponds to the writer position here.

Well, I'm not quite sure that's the thing. To my way of thinking, the writers are not interchangeable cogs. Nor are actors or directors. What makes a show popular ARE the writers, actors and directors. You can't simply plug in another pretty face or fast typist and expect to have the same quality and get a show that people will want to see over and over and over, down through the years.

Yes, the producers paid the artists once...and the ONLY reason the producers get money again in the future is because of the work that writers and actors do.

Jose said...

After Steve Carell taped his last episode, Mindy Kalling tweeted her unused Michael Scott story lines. Can you think of any unused Coach story lines? I'm particularly interested to know if/how his relationship with his daughter was going to be developed.