Thursday, May 10, 2012

Writers Indignity #2756

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 recently 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. 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.


Thomas said...

I have listened to an awful lot of the Simpsons audio commentaries, since they have much better commentaries than the other series I have on DVD. It turns out the best way to get a better look at a show is to have 3-6 talented people have a natter about it while it runs.

However, John Swartzwelder famously refuses to do any commentaries, even when offered pay and convenience. Never quite sure why, but I guess you get to choose things like that if you've written 60 episodes.

Unknown said...

From outside your industry, it seems like good writers finally got the respect and recognition that they deserve with these fantastic dramas and sitcoms.
I think of Lost, 30 Rock, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, New Girl, etc.

Apparently, this is not the case. It's amazing just how important the quality of writing is when it's apparent. In the case of Lost, one of the most intricate shows I've ever seen, that must've required a small army of good people to ensure quality and consistency. Then there's "Are You There, Chelsea?", which is so God awful, I knew in the first five minutes that I hoped Chelsea's answer was "no."

Johnny Walker said...

It's crazy that they can still veto an audio track. It makes the WGA's achievement rather pointless.

These days, thanks to the technology, a writer, if they had a burning desire to get something out, could record and distribute it themselves on MP3. But it's not the solution you'd hope for.

Very sad that writers are still second class citizens. Everytime I see a director take the "A Film By" credit where they haven't written it, I think, "Really? You decided to do that?".

Friday question:

What's the show you've worked on that you had the best time being involved in, and have the fondest memories of?

(Quite popcorn, but I'd genuinely like to know.)

Rob Ferguson said...

Harlan Ellison has a great rant on this topic (NSFW):

Suffice it to say that he's of the opinion that you should always be paid for your work....

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I listen to quite a lot of DVD commentaries. The writers are often the most interesting to listen to, but it's not universal. (Matt Weiner is pretty interesting on the MAD MEN tracks, and Joss Whedon has various writers do commentaries on the various BUFFY/ANGEL DVDs; there are a few on SEINFELD DVDs too).

One thing that *does* frustrate me is lack of preparation. You get people saying on the track things like, "I can't remember what happens now" or "I haven't seen this episode for years. Is this the one where...?" A sitcom is 22 minutes long these days, so even if you're not being paid is it really so hard to respect the audience enough to play the show once through to review it and assemble some thoughts worth hearing?

The other frustrating thing sometimes - HIMYM is a particular offender - is that they get a bunch of people together and the people are having so much fun talking to each other that they fail to say anything the audience might like to know about.

The worst tracks, though, are the people - usually directors - who go through saying, "Ah, yes, we were so happy to get for this role, he's such a great actor, and we all love him. Well, that's nice. But isn't it obvious that if you hired him you liked him? It's like TV sports commentators going, "This is such a great sport."

At Roger Ebert's film festival a couple of weeks ago, Ebert did a showing of CITIZEN KANE accompanied by his DVD commentary, which was of course thoughtful, knowledgeable, enlightening, and entertaining. Before someone starts shrieking about ego, it's worth noting that a) Ebert is in poor health atm and made only three very short appearances on stage during the entire five days (getting a standing ovation each time), whereas in past years he's done most of the hosting and introduction duties (latterly with a speech synthesizer), b) this particular commentary won an award, and c) apparently he really wanted to hear his voice in the Virginia Theater for one last time before it is closed for remodeling until next year's festival. There was, to my knowledge, only one complaint - Ebert sent a note up to the stage afterwards that he'd heard a woman in the lobby demanding her money back because someone wouldn't stop talking throughout the movie.

But the experience did make me wonder why no one is doing time-coded expert commentaries for sale/download on iTunes et al. Writers could easily do this.


Anonymous said...

Problem is television writers striving to be taken seriously is much like women striving to be taken seriously. They're always undermined by the significant number of their weakest members. Writers get treated like crazy bitches because too many of them act like crazy bitches. Too many of them are drama queens so it's easy to devide them, and keep them from getting their way on important matters.
Always been that way. Always will.

Brian Phillips said...

Like Thomas, I enjoy the Simpsons commentaries. Perhaps in the spirit of "we are being treated like chattel" the few "NewsRadio" commentaries I heard were not that good.

The best commentary tracks that I know of are for "The Incredibles" and "...Buckaroo Banzai", because they give you the option of reading the commentary as opposed to hearing it.

Special Mention: Galaxy Quest, which features a normal commentary track as well as one in Thermian the benevolent aliens in the movie.

Two minutes of that=all four sides of Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music".

Unknown said...

Is Mel Gibson posting on here again?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

If you got compensated by each commentary session, Matt Groening and Al Jean would be richer than they already are.

chuckcd said...

And the Moose was furious!
Love those Woody Allen standup albums!

Tom Galloway said...

So, was it you getting up at 3:00 a.m. to do the call, or the British journalists taking the call at 11:00 p.m. their time?

(Yeah, I figure you just tossed out the 3:00 time, but it's about the worst time for a US West Coast to Britain/Europe call. In my experience, such calls usually get made in the 0700-0900 block on the West Coast/1500-1700 block in Britain.)

Paul Duca said...

Chuckcd...and the joke's on the rabbi because it's restricted.

Anonymous said...

Friday question:

The show runner at "community" called Chevy Chase a "prick" on his Twitter page today. Is there some method to his madness? Will this somehow help get the show back on? Is he trying to off his own show? Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

The best audio commentary has been done by Joss Whedon for the Dr. Horrible DVD. It's called Commentary! The Musical and it's a 45 minutes long commentary by the crew in form of a musical.

Barry Traylor said...

Some commentary tracks are highly entertaining and informative. while some are a total waste of time. What I had no idea about was the lack of compensation. Now I know why some actors, etc. do not do them.

ajm said...

The best DVD commentary ever is This is Spinal Tap, with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer in character as Nigel, David and Derek trying to follow along.

Harkaway said...

Although you may not get compensated with cash, you will be appreciated, quoted and cited by those who study the genre. This may result later with retrospectives at institutions in faroff cities where you will be fawned over and appreciated, and occasionally allowed to share the wisdom you have acquired by working at your craft.

And, as studios seek to monetize their holdings again and again, just because a commentary track isn't used this time, doesn't mean it won't be included in the future when they are trying to find a way to include some new element to get people to purchase a popular series again.

Finally, although it is good to be relaxed in the commentary, some of us enjoy hearing about choices made on story arcs, casting of players, ways the network was gamed, etc. I've mostly listened to drama commentaries and Matt Weiner's for Mad Men are by far the best--for me. He shows you his thought process. Jon Hamm is also good, but actors generally aren't as reflective as he is. Writers need to do these commentaries if they want to enhance the respect they receive.

Please do one or two if you get the chance, just to get your point of view on the record, although this blog sets that out pretty well. And I really appreciate all of the time you put in on it.