Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writers' Indignity #4826

A few years ago I got a call out of the blue from Twentieth Century Fox Publicity. The 7th season of MASH was being released in Great Britain and they wanted to know if I would do a phone conference call with British journalists to promote the new DVD’s.  It would take about an hour.  I asked when the conference was planned. “3:00 today she said, cheerfully.” “Great,” I said, “If the first seven seasons of MASH are delivered to my house by 3:00 I will do the interview.” An hour later a messenger was at my door.

The point is this: not only do writers not make a lot of money off these DVD releases, the studios won’t even give us free copies. Unless of course, THEY need something. And it’s not just writers. I was having lunch with one of the cast members of CHEERS and she said Paramount never sent her a copy of the DVD’s.

I love how in the new WGA contract, if a studio plans on having bonus tracks on a film DVD they must invite the writer to do one. That’s only fair, of course, since directors always get to do them. But here’s the catch: The studios are not obligated to USE the writer’s bonus track, nor are they obligated to pay him for his time and effort. Reminds you of Lucy teeing up the football for Charlie Brown, doesn't it?   I don’t think we’ll strike over this issue, but it’s yet another example of how the studios view us.

And this brings up another point – one that Mark Evanier brought up once in his fine blog – should writers, directors, whoever get compensated for recording bonus tracks? If you’re a director and own a piece of the film then it’s certainly in your best interests to do a bonus track and sell more copies, but what about the rest of us? Yes, it’s fun to do and nice to have your contribution recognized, but are the studios using your ego to take advantage of you? I’ve only done a couple – my two SIMPSONS episodes. It was fun. It was easy. Gracie Films gave me copies of the DVD's without my even asking for them. And the way they recorded the track was just to screen the episode and we chimed in as it rolled. So the whole thing took maybe a half hour. I never thought about compensation. 

But what if the studio that made VOLUNTEERS came to me and said they were doing a big anniversary edition and wanted me to do a bonus track for free? First of all I would plotz that anyone would want to do an anniversary edition, but then I would be faced with a dilemma. Should I or shouldn’t I?

It reminds me of a great Woody Allen joke from his stand-up days. (That's two Woody Allen jokes in two days.)  He was offered a Vodka commercial and didn’t feel it was morally right. But the pay was great. So he went to his rabbi for counsel. The rabbi told him to take the moral high ground. So he passed on the commercial. And then a few months later he saw it and who was selling the Vodka? His rabbi.

I would probably agree to do the bonus track.

And they wouldn’t use it.

32 comments :

Karan G. said...

Friday question: Can you think of serendipitous moments in your career….right place, right time….the universe giving you a helping hand? (As an example: In the 1950’s, the conservative New York Times book reviewer would never have selected Jack Kerouac’s first novel to review. As it happens, the reviewer went on vacation, and a more liberal leaning substitute selected the book and gave it a great review, displeasing the main book reviewer, who never allowed the substitute to review again. Nevertheless, Kerouac’s writing career was well underway……..serendipity.)

Dave Creek said...

I can't believe no one's posted this yet, so here it is: Harlan Ellison's classic rant on paying the writer. Warning: harsh language.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Here's a Friday question regarding M*A*S*H:

Were Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe a little more "liberal" as showrunners than Larry Gelbart? The reason I ask is because I notice some of the actors seemed to have a little more input into the direction and development of their characters during that time (i.e. Loretta Swit supporting the end of Margaret's affair with Frank, Gary Burghoff feeling Radar worked better as a naive farmboy, or even Jamie Farr's idea of having Klinger stay in Korea after the war), whereas I've read that Larry Gelbart was adament about nobody changing one iota of the script that was written when filming (to the point Alan Alda apparently delivered a line that was actually a typo, but delivered the line as written by it was Larry's script).

And while on the subject, do you think a show fares better creatively or even commercially under a showrunner who's more conservative or liberal, in that respect?

Ruth Harris said...

Ken, I'm sure you've seen this great & classic Harlan Ellison rant "Pay the writer!" but for those who haven't...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

kpj said...

Ken,

Interesting topic. Here's my take on the matter. No, I don't believe you (or anyone) should be compensated for commentary UNLESS you are required to do so as part of your contract and the compensation is written in. To my knowledge, that is not something that is done but that is the only way I think it is equitable for all parties. I do get this is tricky since some projects are older than commentary tracks but I still generally feel the same way.

Here's why. I truly don't believe commentaries are needle movers for the sales of these products. Yes, I understand they can use it in the promotion for the sale (X number of hours of bonus features, including 2 commentaries!!) but I really don't think most people care all that much. I say this as someone who has listened to more commentaries than I care to think about, especially on movies and tv shows that I love. However, I would also argue that it is probably one of the least used bonus features, although I obviously can't prove it. I will say I know very few people who listen to them even though they may also enjoy the original content. Even if they do listen, most people maybe do so once and then move on (probably true of most of the special features).

Another reason I brought up the fact that I have listened to multiple commentaries over the years is to point out my favorite types of commentaries are usually those where the person or people doing the commentary are happy to be there to share their stories and insight on the project. If it becomes something where the person is only there because they are being paid, I believe then it drags down the commentary and you get those types where it feels like a job for both the person doing it and the person listening to it. I've listened to my share of those too, although I try to block those out.

Plenty of people have refused to do commentaries over the years and I respect that choice. If you don't feel doing the commentary is worth your time or don't want to relive the project for whatever reason, fine. Use the time for other creative endeavors or to spend time with your family or friends. Writers (or other people who don't have a piece of the profits) worrying about compensation for something they are not required to do seems like a fairly small issue overall.

Brian said...

"Reminds you of Lucy teeing up the football for Charlie Brown, doesn't it?" - See this and you wont feel sorry for Charlie anymore Ken.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZkJAx8FycI

VP81955 said...

Hope I have to face such a dilemma in the near future; it will mean at least on of my feature scripts did enough box office to warrant a DVD of it with plenty of extras. (I can dream, can't I?)

John H said...

Unfortunately physical media is losing out to streaming, thus the demand for commentaries and interviews are waning. I've ranted on here before as a Cheers enthusiast and blu-ray collector that Paramount doesn't care about the series. The first few seasons sold well on DVD, the middle seasons didn't. It took several years for them to even release seasons 9 through 11. The DVD's are missing footage and music for various reasons. The extras were poor as well (where was the 1983 Super Bowl spot?). All things considered, Paramount is more concerned with the next Transformers film instead of preserving Cheers and other classic programming (they way they were initially broadcasted) so they can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Mike said...

Payment related issues are never ending. Writers are shafted always. But sometimes writers don't like to see actors being paid "too much".

Marta Kauffman hated when they paid all the actors of "Friends" 1 mil per episode. Not that her bank balance got dented, but she just hated someone else than her, being compensated well.

I am with her though - actors are overpaid.

And I also believe that, they should not get any residuals too. Writers wrote/created, so its their stuff and its ok for them to get residuals. For actors one time payment is enough. Why the residuals?

Andy Rose said...

When they were putting together the complete Seinfeld on DVD, they were very eager to have extensive bonus features, including interviews with the cast about every episode. Jason Alexander initially declined because he had always been annoyed that Jerry and Castle Rock would not give the cast a piece of the show’s back end. He refused to be part of the DVDs for any fee; he would only do it for profit-sharing. Evidently he got what he wanted, because he’s all over the DVDs.

bruce said...

I'm a math professor. This week, a commercial publisher asked me if I was interested in evaluating a 660 page undergraduate textbook and writing a report on it. Their compensation offer: $300 worth of their books! These days, most new academic books are available in e-form from the library, and of course, you have to pay income tax as if it were $300 in cash. As you might guess, I said no.

Lisa said...

Andy Rose,

Yes I too wanted point that out. But mainly from Michael Richards perspective. He was told that nothing will be paid for his commentary. He agreed. But Jason was the one who got the 3 together and fought for a share. They got it finally. Larry and Jerry hated that naturally.


https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/pact-brings-peace-to-the-seinfeld-cast/article4087758/

http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/breaking-down-the-seinfeld-economy.html

Anonymous said...

Earl B:

Curious: might this be just an American thing? The British producers of classic-era Doctor Who DVDs once mentioned that commentaries (which often included writers) were by far the most expensive extras they produced, because everyone had to be paid.

Nathan said...

In this blog as well as the videos referenced by some... it is shown as writers doing the work for nothing and being cheated. A writer sympathetic view.

But I found a case where the writer is doing the commentary for free and also EXPECTS others to do it for free. Read the last para from this article:
https://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/23/arts/three-stars-of-seinfeld-boycott-a-dvd-deal.html

The writer is pissed that the cast members are asking for some money. He himself seems to be happy of being part of this "greatest show" and he expects others to be grateful for also being a part of it and do the commentary for free.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I do enjoy the commentary tracks. It's the primary reason I'll buy a DVD of a movie I've seen countless times before. One thing I hate is when a studio releases a bare-bones version first and then a couple of years later re releases a version with commentaries and other bonus features. An obvious attempt to trick you into buying TWO DVDs instead of one. I agree that some commentaries are a waste of time. Either they're so esoteric that they border on pretentious. Or They sound like you're watching "Mystery Science Theater 3000." The best commentaries are when you learn something about how the movies are made. i.e. when you get some insight into the thought process of why the director, actors, writers, etc., chose to do what they did. I for one would love to hear Ken's commentary on VOLUNTEERS. Although that would mean having to buy a second DVD. Damn greedy studios!!
M.B.
P.S. One of the absolute worst commentaries I've ever heard was Robert Wuhl's for an episode of POLICE SQUAD he had written. Throughout, most of what he said was, "I don't remember that." I hope he DID NOT get paid for that.

Dave Creek said...

kpj: What does not being required to do something have to do with whether you're paid or not? If they're asking you to work and you accept the assignment, you should be paid.

Mike: Who decides who is "overpaid?" Bo matter how much anyone makes, they should receive residuals for their work, whether they're writers or actors or whatever. These are positions where your show can be cancelled in an instant and you're out of work. For some people, residuals allow them to make a living while they look for the next gig. Not every actor starred in FRIENDS. Sometimes that next great hit show actually airs four episodes and is gone.

I'm uncertain why some people are so eager for production companies and networks to hold on to even more of the millions they make.

Dr Loser said...

@Bruce:
"As you might guess, I said no."
And I would have done so, too. But the sad thing is, there's no solidarity. 80% of people cave in and take the $300.
(I speak with some bitterness as somebody who worked with a bunch of very talented programmers who described their job as "like building the Bridge over the River Kwai." Apparently being the Alec Guinness character doesn't help you much.)

Todd Everett said...

Commentaries give the, uh, commenter the ability to praise or get even with others connected with the property, so there's that.

Jon H said...

I wonder if payments were what made Paramount dump DVD commentaries from Seasons 2 & 3 of THE BRADY BUNCH. Season 1 had a few commentaries, from show creator Sherwood Schwartz and from actors Barry Williams, Chris Knight, & Susan Olsen. Barry mentioned that the 3 actors had again recorded commentaries for Seasons 2 & 3, but when the DVDs came out, they weren't included. I wonder if by dumping the already-recorded commentaries, Paramount was able to trick the actors out of payment for their work. I was angry to read about the dumped commentaries and immediately cancelled my Season 2 prepurchase on Amazon. I didn't buy all the seasons' DVD sets for many years thereafter, after their prices came down.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@John H Well, it doesn't help that streaming caters to lazy people. It's also partly because studios are becoming more and more stingy with DVD releases when it comes to bonus features (mainly to get you to buy the Bluray releases instead).

Marc Wielage said...

Here's an extra story: when Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards were asked to do interviews by Sony Pictures TV for a documentary for the SEINFELD boxed DVD set, they pointed out that (as per their deal) they got zero percent of the DVD sales, even though Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld did get a big chunk. After a few weeks of back-and-forth negotiation, in which Sony steadfastly refused to give them a percentage, they very reluctantly paid them $1 million each just for 3 hours of interviews. So at least they got a big bonus. I have no idea if Sony was nice enough to also send them a copy of the DVDs.

Anonymous said...

This column's got to be a rerun. DVD sales have fallen off to the point that back catalog product is lucky to get even a barebones release, much less one with the generous bonus features and commentaries that were common a few years ago.

I understand John H.'s frustration with the way Paramount has handled the DVD release of CHEERS. Paramount may be better with DVD releases of its new and recent shows. Their releases of older shows, though, are rarely anything other than bare-bones. The exceptions seem to be any series with STAR TREK in their titles or that star Lucille Ball. Those will be packed out with extras. Even Ball's THE LUCY SHOW made it to DVD with a ton of bonus features on each season set. Would have been nice if CHEERS had warranted even a fraction of that kind of attention.

Andy Rose said...

@Lisa: And yet Steve Bannon is still getting profits from Seinfeld. What a world.

@Mike Bloodworth: I am often astonished at how badly produced some DVD commentaries are. There are a lot of Robert Wuhl-esque tracks out there and a lot of meandering stories punctuated by sudden stretches of silence (presumably stories that were muted because Legal wouldn't clear them). There was a commentary for (I think) Arrested Development where one of the actors got caught in traffic on the way to the recording studio, so they called him on a cell phone speaker, and much of the commentary consisted of everybody laughing at themselves for how badly the track was going. Maybe Ken has some perspective on this from The Simpsons tracks... I'm sure the sessions are tightly booked, but do they make no effort at all to refresh memories or clean up screwups?

Kit said...

Andy, that depends on who "they" are - some commentaries are / were recorded in one go with cast who'd never watched the episode, some were recorded with well-prepared creatives, guest experts, or moderators to assist the memory of aged actors.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Anonymous That's the problem with a lot of older shows: they come from a time where home video releases were pretty much unheard of, so they really weren't thinking in terms of such special features and what have you. Older shows on DVD are lucky to include any kind of features like that. Season 1 of I DREAM OF JEANNIE has a commentary on the pilot episode by Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman, and Bill Daily. Season 2 of HOGAN'S HEROES has a blooper reel, behind-the-scenes footage shot by Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer's appearance on THE PAT SAJAK SHOW, TV promos, and an episode commentary by Robert Clary. Season 1 of BEWITCHED has a brief documentary with some of the cast and crew. Season 1 of THE ODD COUPLE has interviews and commentaries with Jack Klugman, commentaries from Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, Tony and Jack's appearances on THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW, a blooper reel, and TV promos. Those are just some examples.

kpj said...

@Dave Creek

Know this is a delayed response but here goes. I'm definitely not eager for the production companies and networks to hold onto their money. I agree with the premise that people should be paid for work. I think where you and I differ is that I don't really consider people going into to comment on these tracks work. I usually think of them as a recorded conversation. I don't think the majority of people are prepping for these sessions or rewatching the content beforehand. As others have pointed out, most of them seem like they are done without much editing or retakes. They're showing up and giving their memories and/or insights, which is great but I doubt most of them are putting a lot of time into it. In my experience, show creators/runners, producers and/or directors are the most prepared since they have insight into various facets of the production, but actors are very hit and miss.

Yes, everyone's time is valuable but like I stated in my previous comment, if you don't feel it is worth your time to do it, then don't. I don't want people just showing up only because they are being paid and then adding nothing to the commentary. I'd rather have people that want to be there and talk about the project. It's the same way I feel about a celebrity or musician interview where the person obviously does not want to be there. It's something they have to do so they're doing it but they are going to make sure no one enjoys it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I listen to a lot of commentaries. Agreed, streaming services are eating into these extras, but as against that there are now many more outlets for interviews, podcasts, etc. Slate does a weekly podcast on THE AMERICANS with people from the show that is pretty much equivalent to a commentary, for example. Agree that the best ones are those that give you insight into the decisions that had to be made. One of my favorites was the director's commentary on THE OPPOSITE OF SEX because he talked a lot about the things he felt could have been done better and why.

Anyone involved with a highly successful show knows the studio is going to be making money off their work for a long, long time. Actors joining a new show are taking risks, too. (You take this pilot and miss out on being cast in FRIENDS...or you're young and your agent isn't paying attention, and you don't get much money at the beginning...) Why shouldn't they be paid residuals? Acting is a creative job, too.

wg

Greg Ehrbar said...

One of the worst commentaries was on a major film in which the director took a phone from his wife and jotting down his shopping list.

One of the best was John Cleese on the second issue of FAWLTY TOWERS. Having such a legend comment on a classic show was like having Lucille Ball comment on I Love Lucy or Jackie Gleason comment on The Honeymooners. He spoke about the cast members, the details, was self critical, described the process, and as Mark Evanier recently mentioned on his blog, was generous in his credit to Connie Booth for her work on the show, since she is generally overlooked.

Very often commentaries are the only reason I buy a DVD or Blu-ray since the films themselves have become so accessible by streaming. You don't even have to be watching the visuals to enjoy them, once you've seen the film or TV show. So it's like buying an audio CD. They really should sell downloads of them.

Andy Rose said...

@Wendy M. Grossman: I really like some of the podcasts that are out there now, particularly for Vince Gilligan's programs. He makes a point of inviting a variety of people involved in the production for different episodes. Over the course of a season, you get a really good overall perspective on how their show operates. Podcasts can work better than synced commentaries because the conversation can flow naturally instead of, "What should I say about this scene here... well, I think it was cold that day..."

Greg Thompson said...

What's a DVD?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Andy Rose: Yes, some commentaries are just cast parties..."Wow! I don't remember this episode and I'm not sure I ever saw it before but isn't it great to be here together having fun?" At least podcasts are contemporaneous enough that people still remember what they're talking about.

wg

Donald from Chicago said...

Wait, you missed the better Woody Allen joke from that routine. He initially takes the call and tells the ad agency that he is an artist, does not do commercials and doesn't pander. They say, "Too bad, it pays $10,000." Woody says, "Hold on, I'll put Mr. Allen on the phone."