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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Add It Up: This NYTimes Residual Story Makes Zero Sense


Though I’ve done my fair share of entertainment business writing, I find it’s generally best to leave the dollars and cents reporting these to David Poland, or to link to Anne Thompson at Variety.
But a recent, jawdroppingly stupid story in the New York Times makes me break that rule.
Film business reporter Brooks Barnes, who comes to the Times from the Wall Street Journal (and therefore surely ought to know better) gives an update on the slurry of ongoing negotiations between the Writer Guild of America and the studios, and the fears of a strike in Hollywood.
One issue is how to allocate residual payments – the money paid to writers (and directors, actors and producers) when a film or TV title is re-shown or sold on DVD, television, the internet or on some new media yet to be invented. How do you value each new media platform as it becomes more or less popular?
Boring, complicated accounting stuff: but it’s how entertainers and variety acts make money on repeat performances, adaptations and sequels.
The New York Times’ Barnes doesn’t get this. He starts his story with an analogy only a studio accountant would make.

Jasper Johns isn’t paid based on the number of years his flag paintings remain popular attractions at museums. Rem Koolhaas doesn’t cash a check every time an architecture fan takes a trip to Seattle to see his space-age public library. So why should the writers, directors and actors responsible for box-office bombs like “Gigli” be able to pocket some cash every time somebody buys the DVD?
It’s a question that cuts to the heart of the biggest fight in Hollywood these days and sums up a fundamental choice the troubled entertainment industry needs to make: whether to cling to old blueprints for running the business or to draft a whole new set.

No. That’s not the question at all.

Painters like Jasper Johns can sell off their works outright, or sign agreements with musems for exhibitions, or they can license images on T-shirts, posters and calendars. Abstract Expressionism is, I’ll warrant you, an unlikely source material for a film script, graphic novel or TV series, but should it happen, it’d be an adaptation, and the original artist would residual payments when the later works are sold.
Playwrights, songwriters, lyricists get royalties and residuals because their works aren’t considered on-time experiences. One ticket gets you one admission to the cinema. When you purchase a music CD or a film DVD, you’re actually getting a license to enjoy the music in your own home — not to broadcast it for a paying audience. (Read the FBI warning and fine print)
It’s why your high school can’t simply put on a production of MY FAIR LADY or RENT or a David Mamet play without getting a permission from Samuel French company. It’s why recording artists can’t release a new version of the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” without agreeing to pay royalties to the copyright holders.
Barnes — and the studios — can’t really be suggesting that buying a ticket to one showing of 300 entitles me to infinite viewings and free DVD copies and downloads of the film.
If the studios try to curtail residual payments and go for up front, one-time payments to writers, directors and producers, and keep the future earnings for themselves, they’re saying they don’t value the future of their films and other works. And if studios don’t value their future, they deserve a mass audience that pays up-front and once — or maybe not at all — for their products.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon