More Hollywood writers do end-run around studio system

The strike is over, but some top writers are still exploring ways to turn the Internet into a new business model.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

The searchlights, red-carpet couture, and teary-eyed thank-yous will be back in place this Sunday for ABC's worldwide Oscar telecast. That's because the striking Hollywood writers came back to work just in the nick of time.

But behind the appearance of business-as-usual in the world of movies and TV is a shifting entertainment universe that is anything but. While the striking writers had their pens down and union hackles up, many were seeking creative new ways to rewrite the rules of engagement with the industry.

That means scores of adventurous, often-angry film and TV scribes reaching out to find new partners – venture capitalists, equity firms, advertisers – who can promise greater ownership, control, and independence within the new media world. The trend includes various ways to skirt studio bosses to reach consumers directly on the Web.

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The trend was already percolating before the strike but exploded with new life during what became a contentious, three-month work stoppage. Now it is continuing with vigor as the 10,500-member-strong union returns to a dwindling number of studio jobs.

"A growing number of writers are trying to navigate from the prestrike world to the poststrike world by asking the question, 'How do we become smart and entrepreneurial on our own?' " says Tom Smuts, cofounder of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a Writers Guild member. "They're asking how we can proceed with new models, new ideas, in a way that doesn't recreate the studio system we all complain about."

Suspicious of studios

In recent years, as studios and networks explored ways to make money from TV shows and movies on the Internet, their reluctance to pay writers led to the strike. Terms of the new agreement now include a percentage of the profits for writers from the emerging digital platforms.

But the possibilities that many writers explored while off work have led them to believe it's time for a more fundamental change.

"The strike has caused skepticism and acrimony toward the studio system. Because of that, a lot of writers are doing their own website and creating content so that they don't need the studios' help," says Dyan Traynor, a WGA writer who has penned several pilots for Fox and A&E.

Premium content from established writers is already finding a place and audience online. Top comedy writer Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy") has inked a deal for an animated series directly for the Internet. Award-winning dramatic writers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick ("thirtysomething," "Once and Again") are other prime examples of writers who set up shop on the Internet.

This past fall, the writing duo took their new drama "quarterlife" directly to the Internet instead of shopping a traditional pilot to a broadcast network. More important, they funded it themselves and then turned around and licensed it to NBC, who will begin airing it next week, thus reversing a decades-old pattern of being writers for hire.

Smuts and others say enough writers will be launching their own programs – some licensed to a single website, some available across the Web, and some available by subscription – that the practice is likely to be considered mainstream in two years. The expansion of broadband access, which makes the streaming of digital content practical, is also driving the trend: As of October, more than 50 percent of US adults had broadband, up from 9 percent in 2001.

"I believe by the end of this decade, it will be commonplace to find content on the Web produced specifically for the Web by A-list Hollywood talent," says Gus Tai, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

Don't look for Oscar-caliber, yet

Full-blown, multimillion-dollar dramatic serials and scripted comedies – or high-gloss original movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean" – may be a little way off, experts say. But a number of more modest early efforts from Hollywood writers are already appearing on websites such as Icebox.com. Budget fare – some of it sexually explicit – also can be seen on seven series now running on a site called 60Frames.

"It's definitely true that writers are looking for alternative ways to work," says Tal Vigderson, managing director of Icebox, which was created by top network TV show runners such as Howard Gordon ("24"), Rob LaZebnik ("The Simpsons"), and Jonathan Collier ("King of the Hill," "Monk") – all of whom have expressed frustration in working with network TV. The site has had as many as 100 writers creating original content including critically beloved scribes such as HBO's Larry David ("Curb your Enthusiasm").

Many of the writers working with Icebox say they've left TV because what ends up on the air bears little resemblance to what they conceived. "Writers like us because they see their creation done the way they wanted it done," says Mr. Vigderson.

As interest rises, efforts to help define and navigate the new terrain are also proliferating. Founders Media Group, a financial partnership devoted to the development of online content, is forming companies with writers and creators to zero in on different niche audiences.

Virtual Artists Co. – founded by screenwriter Aaron Mendelsohn ("Air Bud") – has at least 20 entertainment and software writers investing about $10,000 each to fund projects that include short films and feature-length movies. Investors also include Susannah Grant, who wrote "Erin Brockovich," and Warren Leight, who has run shows such as "Law and Order: Criminal Intent."

And in two weeks, Smuts will take over UnitedHollywood.com – a strike blog site that became a clearinghouse for producers, directors, writers, and other talent to investigate new distribution models and economic, advertising, licensing, and creative outlets.

"It's an open question how all this is going to work," says Smuts. "We still need to understand a lot of things, but we have to learn by doing it and having those who are trying share what they've learned."

• Monitor intern Alison Tully contributed to this report.

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