Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Death of Hollywood's Middle Class: My Thoughts

Lots of people have asked me about this article, which basically maintains that with the new streaming services and all the short orders for series instead of the established 22 episodes per season it is really affecting mid-level actors and writers. In a business that was never secure in the first place, now it’s really hard to cobble together a career unless you’ve made it and then you’re greatly overpaid. Additionally, there are no residuals or they’re greatly reduced so what was a fifty-year safety net is now gone.

So… my thoughts.

First off, an irrefutable law of the universe: Networks and studios will try to screw you any way they can.

Any time there’s a new delivery model they will screw you until the unions fight for fair compensation (often after a strike and often not getting enough).

And it’s getting harder because of consolidation. Giant mega corporations can hold out a lot longer than a writer with mortgage payments.

The good news is with more scripted shows there are more options and opportunities for writers and actors. The bad news is they don’t pay well and many are short orders so just landing a staff job on a show might not be enough to pay the bills for a year.

When I broke in (a thousand years ago) there were just three networks. You either sold something to one of the big 3 or you didn’t work at all. It’s like there was the Major Leagues and no minors. So breaking in was very hard, but if you did and you had the talent to remain in the business you could maintain a decent career over a number of years.

Now it’s easier to break in (especially if you’re diverse) but harder to get any real traction. I also suspect, and I have no numbers to back this up, but there were fewer people trying to break in in 1975 than today.

The article makes a compelling case that it’s tough in this current landscape and it’s hard to argue with that.

All I can say is cream rises to the top. The most talented actors and writers will be in demand just as they’ve always been. You be one of them. Yes, it’s harder to make a living in this new multi-platform world, but name me a profession where it’s not more difficult these days.


Dhruv said...

Thanks for the post Ken.

Janet Ybarra said...

Interesting analysis, Ken. One question: you said it's easier now to break in "especially if you're diverse."

Does that mean "diverse" in the sense that you can write different genres (ie comedy and drama) or "diverse" in terms of personal ethnicity?

In general, the issues that are laid out here are issues that hit (and hurt) journalists and journalism over the last 15 years or so.

In the case of journalism, cheaper advertising flocked to and flooded the Web, which began destabilizing the traditional newspaper business model.

Most newspaper people were never going to get rich (my first newspaper job paid about $12k/year for upwards of 80 hours a week) but eventually the deal was you who end up in a job that was at least vaguely more family friendly, with an income that was considered middle class.

That was before the Web.

After the Web, smaller papers struggled. Some--many--went under.

Larger papers (ie The Washington Post), used to be staffed by many veteran reporters and editors.

In the case of the Post, those veterans either retired or were bought out in a huge buy-out many years back.

Today the staffing at the Post is such that the major positions today are filled with those who in the old days would have been mid-level at best, and they are absolutely run ragged.

The reporters aren't in a position to complain because they know there is a stream of other kids (and in many cases they *are* kids) who want those jobs because it is the Washington Post after all.

So right now the future of journalism looks uncertain at the moment. There has been talk for the last decade or so of converting newspapers/websites, etc. to a non-profit model (ie like NPR or think tanks).

I personally feel that would be the best bet.

Anonymous said...

Problem Number One is that you have to know what the norm is. I still run into people who think that they're going to make a million dollars on their first screenplay. Some years back, I was involved in a miserable situation where a participant in a project refused to accept an entry-level contract and spent the pre-production period making the producers so sick of his constant demands that they finally killed the deal and wasted the time of everyone who had worked seriously on the film. If you don't understand what your rights and responsibilities are in this line of work, your presumed genius is not going to carry you along.

Problem Number Two is that the norm is changing. It's important to understand what's being lost. It's very easy for predatory employers to lure wannabes into lousy deals if inexperienced players haven't learned what constitutes a living wage. Streaming has proven to be one way to reduce industry pay standards just as reality television was. Grabbing terrible jobs just lowers the bar for everyone else until the lowest return becomes the new norm.

My first year here, I turned down a job with a shady outfit that intended draining funds from hopefuls. The guy running the company told me quite openly how there was money to be made by exploiting people's fantasies of a Hollywood career, which I've since seen in pointless seminars and consultants and handbooks that are geared more toward pep talks than serious analysis of the customer's abilities and prospects. I can't help but feel that the studios themselves are playing the same con by short-changing hungry talent looking for a foothold in the business.

Dave Creek said...

This also happens in publishing. You have a lot of predatory agents and publishers who take advantage of the fact that newbies don't know that you shouldn't pay to be published, that real publishers pay you. People spend $10,000 or more for their books to be published when they could educate themselves on book formatting and how to obtain cover art and editing help cheaply and put their book on Amazon or any number of other online outlets for a couple hundred dollars or less. If you have good beta readers and think you can get by without formal editing, you can get it out there for a few bucks.

I always promote the great site writerbeware.com. It's hosted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (I'm a member), and focuses on publishing in all genres, not just SF. But I think anyone who wants to work in any creative field could look at some of the scams out there in the publishing world and apply the general knowledge to their own field.

Stu West said...

Reading the article, the question I had was: if you're a mid-level writer, do you actually need to live in L.A.? Obviously quite a few of the hundreds of shows currently in production are being shot elsewhere, so if you get hired on a show that's shooting in Vancouver or Atlanta can you just move there rather than stay in the second most expensive city in the US? Or is the writers' room always in Hollywood, no matter where the actors are?

(Not that Vancouver is exactly a cheap place to live, either. But I think you could have the same standard of living there for about $40K less per year.)

YEKIMI said...

As far as papers go, the one in my community was recently sold [for the 4th time]. At one point it was the flagship paper for a nationwide chain, respected all over the country for the way it was run and the investigative reporting it did. The newest owner has upped the price of the paper and doubled the cost of a Sunday paper and for that we now get a paper that is so thin that I can hold it up to a strong light and read what's on the back page through the front. Talked to an employee and the week after it was bought they fired a ton of employees, use the entry level people at their smaller papers to cover everything and stretch the stories out over all their papers and their plan eventually is to basically raise the cost of the print edition so high that people will quit buying it and then they can take everything digital. Oh, and I guess they want the public to do their news and sports reporting for them because they are always telling people if they have a news or sports item, tell us about it and we MAY print your story. Just what I want, Joe Blowski, writing about how his alma mater's team obliterated an opponent and, oh, by the way, his so was the starring quarterback.. Paper, radio, TV, studios...all being gobbled up and replaced by whomever they can get to work for them the cheapest.

Anonymous said...

So how does this apparently new factor play in now?


Blair Ivey said...

" . . . name me a profession where it’s not more difficult these days."

Healthcare.Truck driving. Trades.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Thanks for the info, Ken.

I think the lesson here is that self-production is the wave of the future. Write it, produce it, direct it, distribute it *yourself.* Do NOT let the suits at ANY network or distributor, many of whom are still very much stuck in a grossly outdated Hollyweird (here used in the nonpartisan sense) mindset, have any say at all about your creativity or what direction you want to go in.

And thanks to digital tech, doing all fo this is, while still expensive, *much less so* than it was in the past.

One of the top items on my personal bucket list is to write, produce, direct and distribute at least *one* full-fledged feature-length film of my own. It WiLL happen, it's just a matter of when and how much money I can save and/or raise. (And when it gets done Ken, I hope you don't mind if I send you a copy, as I'd love your feedback.)

Ralph C. said...

" . . . name me a profession where it’s not more difficult these days."

Funeral homes, unfortunately.

DBenson said...

Question: Is there a corresponding squeeze among the suits? Like, the guy who'd interfere with one series now has to interfere with several seres? Are fat cats laying off the slightly less fat cats a layer to two down?

Anonymous said...

"Healthcare.Truck driving. Trades."

Two out of three in which progressive liberal sensibilities and gatekeepers are not much involved.


Justin Murphy said...

Concur with Dave Creek:

It's better to earn $1,000 than $10,000.


Unknown said...

"...the traditional 22 episodes of broadcast networks"

How about the traditional 39 episodes of broadcast networks in the 1950s? (Although I suppose that was as much in network radio as in TV...)

Or, not so long ago, the "traditional" 25 episodes.

Fewer, shorter episodes with more and longer commercial interruptions

Boy, we have been snookered and really embraced the downturn in tv episode production.

Your bud.

Dhruv said...

@ Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve)

That's great. Please let me know too. I am also interested in independent movies and would love to see your movie :)

I am still thinking, when independent movies released on various streaming websites will take off. A few good movies will surely open the floodgates. Going to theaters is very costly and online movies will be cheaper and also more convenient. So, more movies can be seen.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ralph C: I bet that's not true. The funeral industry has been consolidating like many others (and as SIX FEET UNDER documented), and I'd bet those larger chains of funeral homes do to skilled professionals what consolidated chains have done in other professions. Granted, the Baby Boom generation dying off could be quite profitable, but I bet the bulk of those profits will go to a few large companies, not family funeral homes and valued staff.


Andy Rose said...

@Wendy M. Grossman: Also true in some parts of the healthcare industry as the costs of keeping up with all of the paperwork increases. Unless you're in a small town, it's hard to find a solo practice physician anymore. The family practice I use has been absorbed into larger practices twice in the past year. My dentist is now part of a franchise (something that was lampooned on The Middle). Our long-time family pharmacist sold out years ago.

Sometimes people are also simply slow to realize and accept the changing nature of the industry they're in. At one time if you were dedicated to your craft and had high-quality gear, you could make a decent living as a freelance stock photo photographer. Then digital technology made it easier for people with less training to make professional-looking photos -- people who didn't demand royalties -- and the traditional market for stock photos had to make way for the Shutterstocks and iStocks of the world.

I'm hearing similar things now from my friends who work in the voice over industry. Lower barriers to entry are bringing in more people who are bringing down the price range. (Full disclosure: I do a little bit of VO in my spare time, but I don't go on Fiverr and what I do is not really a threat to the livelihoods of the full-timers.) They will tell you all sorts of reasons why these changes are a bad thing for the business, but I notice that all of them use royalty-free stock photos on their websites.

Johnny Walker said...

A Friday question that relates to today's post: Given how proud US TV writers are of their (excellent) Writer's Guild, why are there so many anti-union jokes in American sitcoms?

VincentS said...

Time for a Universal Basic Income.