Friday, 3 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #176: Diary of a Mad Writer's Union

A tip of my jaunty shako to the indefatigable Nikki Finke for recent reports about fast rising indie mogul Tyler Perry and how he's getting jumped on by the WGA for firing 4 writers, and how this union busting is embarrassing the Barack Obama campaign.

If you're too lazy to click the links, I'll try to summarize it. The occasionally cross dressing writer-producer-director Tyler Perry, flush with the mega profits from films like Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Why Did I Get Married, and other films expanded into TV with the sitcom House of Payne and a $200+ million 100 episode deal with TBS, a development deal for another sitcom, and a brand new, custom built studio outside Atlanta, Georgia.

Just as they wrapped up those 100 episodes, the 4 scribes who wrote those episodes asked the WGA to help them with negotiating over health insurance and the royalties from
House of Payne's syndication. Royalties are essential to financial security for people in the feast or famine world of television, and they thought that they could get a good deal because of the show's considerable profit margins.

Tyler Perry thought differently.

fired the writers and now has the Writer's Guild filing a complaint against him with the National Labour Relations Board for the firings, and for negotiating in bad faith over the royalties.

This bugs me, not only because it was a bad thing to do, but also because it was a
bad business decision.

When Perry first burst out onto the mainstream movie scene with his low-budget, but big selling family comedy/dramas, and a bio of hard work, and risk-taking, I thought,
finally, someone who can show the world that you can make movies and not have to follow the same, shoddy Ponzi scheme of a business model that's making it next to impossible to do business in Hollywood these days.

Boy was I wrong.

Perry is thinking like a true mogul, and the motto of his business plan is screw everyone.

I've talked before about how Hollywood's business model is not based on capitalism, but feudalism. The folks at the top think they are there by divine right, and that the world is a zero sum game where in order for them to win, everyone else, the peasantry especially, must use. They believe that the world is just a single pie, and they have to grab as much as they can, and to hell with everyone else.

True capitalism is where both sides in any deal walk
away happy. Employer pays what the market can bear in salary and benefits to the employees, who give the employer their time and services in order for both to profit.

When you try to play silly-buggers with people who make your pie, not letting them get the crumbs off the crust, you're asking for trouble. First, you attract the negative attention of unions, who will be on you like herpes, and you will not be able to get rid of them. Especially when your employees have legitimate gripes against you.

And sure, you'll be able to replace the talent with an unending stream of the younger, hungrier and more naive, your reputation will prevent you from making deals with the more experienced and successful, without paying out mega-simoleans, just ask the studios, and you won't be able to retain the talent who can make you even richer.

Think about it, you got a young writer, he makes your show successful, and let's say he's got an idea for a show that could be a hit. Do you think he's going to go to the producer who screwed him over royalties, or will he use his stint on your show to land a decent agent, and a deal with someone else, who might still screw him over royalties, but will pay more up front?

Of course he's going to go to someone else.

That scribe may have been willing to take a little less up front, if he was secure in the fact that he could trust you to treat him right in the long run.

Perry had the opportunity to expand his empire beyond himself, and created a whole new business model with things that have been missing from Hollywood like trust, loyalty, respect, and business decisions based on business, not on ego.

I remember watching a documentary on the history of Las Vegas, and this comedian was reminiscing about how in the old days, when the mob ran Vegas, his contracts were usually nothing more than a handshake agreement over pay, performances and perks, but now, in the age of corporate casinos, he had to wade through 50+ pages of legalese to determine if he was allowed a bagel at breakfast. Back in the mob days, they trusted each other, the mob trusted him to do his job, he trusted them to pay him and treat him right, and both were happy. Neither would derive any advantage from screwing each other, they both knew, and their little operation ran much more smoothly because of it. Yet one more life lesson we can learn from the mafia.

Hollywood never did learn that lesson, and apparently, neither does Tyler Perry.

Now that I think about it, I should have seen it coming, any man who felt that he needed more than the "Film By" credit to having everything named
Tyler Perry's.... was probably going to let his ego get the better of him eventually.

Well, you learn something new everyday.

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