The Hollywood Disconnection

I tend to get inspired for these daily musings when I sift through the alerts I get overnight (or, on many occasions, in real time as I battle insomnia).  The three that stood out today pretty much sum up how creatives and business people are operating in parallel universes:

— Our old friend Yosemite Zas revealed Warner Discovery’s 4Q22 results.  Like so many of his competitiors’ reports earlier this month, there were few positives.  Per Reuters’

Warner Bros Discovery posted a $2.1 billion loss in the quarter, reflecting charges related to the restructuring of the merged media companies. The company, like its Hollywood peers, is working to create a profitable streaming business as consumers and advertisers flee traditional TV.

Chief Executive David Zaslav said that after completing 10 months of restructuring, the media company now looks to “take full advantage” of its roster of globally recognized characters through new movies and television shows.

Among the more significant news was the announcement of several movies based on LORD OF THE RINGS, which through a complicated maze of rights issues allowed WBD to swoop in and make a deal in spite of the fact that rights were given to Prime Video to make the RINGS OF POWER series that delivered record scripted series audiences of Amazon last fall, but cost over a billion dollars to guarantee five seasons of production.  Getting one up from someone else’s success is a foundation of Hollywood competiiton.  After all, Amazon lost a mere $800M in 4Q22.  In today’s Hollywood, losing less is considered a win.

In fact, across the eight major media/tech companies in the business of running streaming services, 4Q22 losses aggregated to $12.278,600,000.  Give take a few hundred million for rounding.

— Anousha Sakoui of The Los Angeles Times reported that, amidst this economic downturn, the likelihood of a writers’ strike and an eventual shutdown of scripted production has become more likely, with ominous signs of stockpiling already in place:

The contract for WGA members does not expire until May 1. But negotiations, set to start March 20, are expected to be fraught, as both sides remain sharply divided over how writers are compensated in the streaming age. Adding to the labor tensions: Unions representing actors and directors also expect contentious negotiations with the studios when their contracts expire June 30.

To be sure, it’s too early to say what will occur, and a strike is not inevitable.

But studios, networks and producers are nonetheless preparing for the worst through a variety of contingency plans that include accelerating production schedules, stockpiling scripts and boosting international productions.

John August, a writer on the WGA bargaining committee, told listeners of his “Scriptnotes” podcast this month that studios and networks are already preparing for what might happen — even though the WGA hasn’t decided on proposals for the talks.

I vividly recall the 2007-08 strike where noisy picket lines queued up right outside my office window, a cacophony of solidarity among creatives who felt they were the engine that drove the train.  But those that build the train had options then, and they have many more now.  As Sakoui elaborated:

As they’ve done in years past, some producers are looking to reality or unscripted shows as a potential replacement for scripted fare that would be disrupted by a work stoppage. Reality TV programs — including Donald Trump’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” — got a big boost after the 2007 strike.

Some are looking to make international content that would be outside the WGA’s jurisdiction.

“There’s an increased interest in local language production,” said Dan Stone, entertainment industry attorney at Greenburg Glusker. “Domestic producers are working with foreign talent to set up projects that will shoot overseas.”

And as Deadline’s Max Goldbart reported from this week’s Berinale Series Market, that’s even more likely to ramp up should a work stoppage occur:

The restructures, layoffs, cancellations and a maybe-strike currently impacting the U.S. TV industry rippled through the halls of the Berlinale Series Market this week as senior execs forecasted an international future.

Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak didn’t mince his words when he described U.S. TV as a “disaster zone” Monday. Hasak, who is currently making shows in Scandinavia and the Middle East, was heavily critical of Disney in particular for a strategy that he deemed akin to a “mental breakdown.”

Danna Stern, who used to run Fauda and Shtisel outfit Yes Studios and was on the first ever Berlinale Series Award jury, said the U.S. is “feeling a bit dead right now” as she flagged the multiple international funding opportunities that are cropping up all over the world for young writers, directors and producers. A wealth of show cancellations is making the U.S. industry “feel a bit like the accountants have taken over from the creatives,” Stern added.

For top-tier serivices like Netflix and Prime Video, where series like SQUID GAME rise to the top of what they purport are ratings despite not being produced in English, and with productions like LORD OF THE RINGS already committed to overseas venues, just because productions may be ramped up does not necessarily mean that U.S. talent will necessarily be needed to create it.

Especially when the celebration of the return of something like this is earning kudos and back-slaps from puff pieces like the one Philip Sledge of CinemaBlend dropped yesterday:

After a break of more than a decade, Party Down is finally back with a new season full of new adventures for the struggling actors and career caterers on the cult classic Starz comedy series. The new season, which picks up with the beloved Party Down Catering Company employees (and their pink bow-ties) for a hilarious reunion, brings with it some new characters to share the screen with Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, and the rest of the gang,

When PARTY DOWN’s first 20 episodes aired on Starz in 2009-10, they were consistently the least-viewed original scripted series being produced for cable or pay television.  Yes, Starz was (and still is) a poor third among pay networks, but the likes of OUTLANDER and POWER have proven they are capable of delivering larger and broader audienes.  There are an awful lot of shows being rebooted these days.  Few were less deserving, based on actual reception, than PARTY DOWN.

But creatives frequently march to thei own drums.  They passionately believe in their work, as they should, but are often oblivious to the realities of the fact that no matter how successful they may personally be, few will ever have the resources to get their work seen at scale,  I always draw the analogy of a starving artist in a cold water flat who can’t sell a painting versus someone who works as a commercial artist for hire.  You need the public to actually want to see your work, let alone sell the business sector that you’re worth their investment–even at the level you may think is insulting.

Really.   The best thing you’ve got, in the midst of all this economic downturn, is PARTY F—ing DOWN?!?!??!

So go ahead and strike if you must.  The monster that was unleashed amidst the last strike is somehow doing well, thank you, being cheered on by the likes of Tucker Carlson for feeding McDonald’s to the embattled residents and first responders in East Palestine, Ohio.   A helluva lot more people are watching him than will watch PARTY DOWN.  And as the Clemson football team knows first-hand, you don’t need a catering service to serve Big Macs and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

Reality ideas are out there to fill the void, creatives, like it or not.  Sony owns the format rights to an ironically named obscure game show produced in 1977 called THE HOLLYWOOD CONNECTION, a poorly produced rip-off of the far more popular MATCH GAME that came and went in a few weeks.  That said, even THAT show had more viewers than PARTY DOWN.

Even that show was more connected that the creative community is these days.

Im not saying shut up and dribble.   I am saying that it may be better to figure out what people in East Palestine, Ohio, and similarly struggling towns in flyover states, many like.  Assuming you still want to eat better than they do, even without caterers.

Until next time….

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