Hollywood is a town awash in hyphenates. TV is loaded with writer-producers. The movie biz is full of writer-directors. There’s even a legion of actor-filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and George Clooney. But as the writers strike enters its third week, I think the future belongs to a tantalizing new hyphenate: the writer-entrepreneur.
Visiting a UCLA film class the other night, I was asked to name the most influential filmmakers of our era. The choices were pretty obvious: Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, John Lasseter, George Lucas. . . . As the names spilled out, I realized they all have something in common. They’re filmmaker-entrepreneurs, artists-turned-businessmen who helped start their own companies to further their work, became financially independent and created a world that operates under a radically different set of rules from the vacuous studio assembly lines. It’s telling that the current strike is about new media yet both sides seem to be following old-school models.
Writer Guild members, listen up. There is a lesson here. Just ask Tony Gilroy, the writer-director of “Michael Clayton,” a nervy thriller that’s won critical raves this fall. Gilroy had a script that was dead in the water until a total outsider — a Boston real estate developer named Steve Samuels — said if Gilroy could get a star and stick to a budget, he’d bankroll the film.
Gilroy didn’t see himself as an entrepreneur. He just had a script that was burning a hole in his pocket. “I’d say the experience was more about my wising up than becoming a visionary,” he explained the other day. “But the moment I started chasing private-equity money, it didn’t take me long before I’d realized that I’d short-circuited the formula for getting a greenlight. I didn’t need studio approval. All I needed was one guy who believed in the movie.”
Gilroy is now a convert. “The studios have got to be hoping that this idea about being entrepreneurs doesn’t sweep over the TV show runners, because once you start seeing really good production values on the Internet, I mean, what does Larry David really need HBO for? This is all everybody is talking about on the line. They’re not talking about healthcare. They’re going, ‘Wow, is there a different way to get our movies and TV shows made?’ “
It’s the kind of talk that’s contagious. Scott Frank, who wrote hits like “Minority Report” before directing “The Woodsman” this year, has been speaking with Samuels about financing a new film. David Twohy, writer-director of “The Chronicles of Riddick,” has lined up financing for a new thriller, “A Perfect Getaway,” from Relativity chief Ryan Cavanaugh, who also bankrolled “3:10 to Yuma.”
Steve Zaillian, who wrote “American Gangster,” has a deal with Mandate Pictures to make under-$10 million character-driven films where he is a 50-50 partner in all the projects. Mandate has a similar partnership with writer-director Sam Raimi of “Spider-Man” fame. Mandate also has a writers program in which, in return for initially cutting their fee, writers can get 25% of the gross after a film goes into profit and have approval rights on hiring the movie’s cast and director.
“Writers who create something rare — a story with great, original characters that movie stars will cut their price to play — have a real value,” says Mandate production chief Nathan Kahane. “But that value doesn’t get unlocked in the studio system. If writers are willing to share our risk, then we’re willing to give them a lot of control and share in the profits too.”
This kind of entrepreneurial formula couldn’t have existed in the era when the studios had a stranglehold on every facet of the business, notably talent, money and distribution. But those days are gone. The stars became free agents long ago. In the last few years, with billions of private-equity dollars flooding the business, the studios have lost their lock on financing too.
All that’s left is marketing and distribution. It’s hard to equal the way studios launch their summer popcorn extravaganzas with a $40-million marketing blitz. But as more entertainment migrates to the Internet, where distribution is basically free to anyone with a computer, the studios will lose that monopoly as well. If the last couple of weeks are any indication, with clips from out-of-work comedy writers popping up every day, the Web could be littered with new must-see video sites by Christmas. Remember: After barely a year in existence, YouTube was bought by Google for $1.65 billion. On the Internet, good ideas travel fast.
“The world is about to change,” Frank says. “Anyone with an Apple computer can make a movie now — it’s never been a more democratic medium. The studios should be very afraid. Once the independent financiers start going directly to writers, things could change really fast. I ask myself every week — why aren’t we all working with them? Look at the movies they’ve made. They are the new Medicis.”
While the studios peddle dreary remakes and special-effects extravaganzas, the movies that really get people talking — such as “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Michael Clayton” and the upcoming “Juno” — have been financed by outside investors. None of the films had a big budget, but fiscal discipline and artistic autonomy often fuels creativity. “Ten million dollars to $30 million is where ambiguity stays alive, where you can have complexity in storytelling,” Gilroy says. “When you get up to a certain budget number with studio films, the bad guys have to all wear black hats.”
The WGA is fighting the good fight. But the glory days of “Norma Rae” are gone. Real change in today’s world comes from the energy and ideas of entrepreneurs, not from labor negotiations. To take control of their work, writers have to cut out the middleman. Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, who just struck a deal with NBC to air their “Quarterlife” Web-only dramatic series, will reap most of the rewards, since they own the show. Not every writer has the clout of that duo to attract outside investors. But as the Internet has proved time and again, game-changing ideas are more likely to come from an unknown 26-year-old newcomer than a fiftysomething veteran.
The models are everywhere today, especially in the music business, where economic upheaval has given birth to a new array of artist-entrepreneurs. Radiohead and Prince have both bypassed the soul-killing tangle of retailers and promotion people by releasing their latest records themselves (with Radiohead using the Internet as its distributor, even letting its fans set the price of the record themselves).
Being entrepreneurial isn’t for the faint of heart. If you want a sweet upfront paycheck, you may not have the stomach for it. But after seeing studios bowdlerize their scripts, many writers will swap a big payday for more control. Twohy says that after Relativity read his script, “They told me, ‘Script approved as-is.’ I’ve never heard a studio ever say that.”
This kind of creative freedom already exists in Silicon Valley, where the creators of product are its owners. Software entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, who helped found Netscape, makes an eloquent argument on his blog that a prolonged strike could undermine the studios’ control of production and distribution, ushering in a new showbiz model built in the image of Silicon Valley.
Even if the strike is settled soon, dramatic change is coming. As more outside money pours into Hollywood and as our computers begin to merge with our TV sets, the studios will have less control over content than ever. NBC’s Jeff Zucker can sneer at the paltry dollars to be made from selling TV shows on iTunes all he wants. But if old media keep pulling their product away, surely the day isn’t far away when Steve Jobs will bankroll his own programming to keep our iPods full of compelling entertainment. [He already did; it was called Pixar.]
Whoever enters the fray will still need writers to create this new content. So writers should keep their eyes on the prize. Getting a few more pennies of digital loot is just a beginning, not an end. The ultimate goal should be finding ways to own a piece of your own work.
“If I were someone like Les Moonves, I’d be scared,” Gilroy says. “You don’t want your employees thinking about opening their own store around the corner. We might be really tough competitors.”