Labor and Creativity

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on August 30, 2017

My first job in any creative pursuit was in IATSE Local 44. IATSE is the labor union that governs below-the-line people who work in film and television. I was a very junior set dresser, and my first assignment on my first day was to go to a department store to get make-up and beauty supplies to sit on Glenda Jackson’s vanity table for a scene that would shoot after lunch. “Get back here in 45 minutes,” my new boss barked at me. I hustled to the store and picked out bottles of Borghese make-up because I liked their shape. It was the first creative decision I ever got paid for.

It’s the Labor Day weekend, and I have been reflecting on how much labor, and labor unions in particular, are responsible for the creative culture we enjoy, the creativity that shapes the context of our lives, that entertains and enlightens us.

When I moved into theatre, I became a stage manager, and joined Actors’ Equity. Equity, like IATSE, is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. As an Equity stage manager, I made sure the actors were treated fairly and according to rules of safety, work hours, breaks, and overall working conditions, and I was treated fairly myself. On top of that, I got a standard salary and there were benefits.

As I became a producer in the film business, I joined the Producers Guild, and I worked with professionals from diverse areas of creativity in many unions — actors in SAG-AFTRA, directors in the DGA, writers in the Writers Guild (which I also became a member of), musicians in the AFM… as well as editors, scenic designers, art directors, drivers, make-up artists, and very junior set dressers like I once was.

Today, I also have become a faculty member of the business school at UC Berkeley, and I’m a proud member of the American Federation of Teachers. Here I have learned that Teamsters don’t just drive the trucks on movie sets — they also represent the graduate student instructors who make sure our courses run smoothly.

Labor unions have made a profound, positive difference in all of our lives. In the creative industries, in addition to the unions I mentioned, there are guilds and organizations that may not have collective bargaining power, such as the Authors Guild, but which nevertheless set voluntary standards for fair treatment, appropriate contracts, and support their members’ creative careers.

Today’s gig economy has benefits for creatives — flexibility of schedules, self-determination of projects — but it has a downside, too, because increasingly creatives’ jobs are being de-unionized and devalued. I don’t expect we can reverse this trend, because it is gaining momentum. Gig “employment” is 34% of the U.S. working economy, and is estimated to be 43% by 2020.

But in the rush toward an uncertain future, a future in which creativity and vibrant culture should play a salutary and transformative role, it’s worth remembering (even this weekend as we tend to the bar-be-que) the value of creative people in numbers, how labor unions have protected and enhanced the world we live in, and how creative people need to be supported in their ability to make a living.

Image: Street art in Los Angeles’s Arts District. Photo by Adam Leipzig.

If You Want to Run an Entertainment Company, Here is Your New Bible

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on September 5, 2016.

I read just about every book that analyzes the entertainment business, both because it’s the business I’m in and I love to learn new perspectives. Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment, by Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang (MIT Press), is the best book on the subject, bar none. Every entertainment executive who hopes to have a job in coming years should read it and follow its prescriptions.

I met Michael Smith, who’s a professor of information systems and marketing at Carnegie-Mellon University, at Sundance in January, where he gave a riveting presentation on digital piracy at the Sundance Institute. We struck up a conversation and, full disclosure, have become friends.

One of the things I most admire about Smith and Telang’s work is that they do not come from the entertainment business at all, and therefore have no axe to grind, no jobs to protect, and no legacy business models to justify. All they care about is data, and they collect lots of it.

Their data leads to conclusions that may not seem shocking to people who follow digital content enterprises, but will certainly upset traditional entertainment companies.

Some say that it’s inevitable for longstanding film, music, television, and publishing companies to survive as they have for many decades. Smith and Telang counter this viewpoint because, they contend, the fundamentals of the business have changed permanently. Where once it was enough to make and own great content — the province of movie studios, record labels, and publishing houses — now that is no longer sufficient. Today it is possible to own the audience, and massive amounts of audience data represent a near-insurmountable competitive advantage. The big question is whether large companies will take this information to heart and change their business models before it’s too late and data-driven companies, like Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, leverage their understanding of the audience to topple a century-old hegemony.

As Smith and Telang summarize their thesis:

“In recent years a perfect storm of technological change has hit the entertainment industries. It involves the convergence of user-generated content, long-tail markets, and digital piracy, and it has diminished the profitability of these industries’ traditional business model.

“At first glance, none of these changes seems to pose much of a threat. User-generated content, after all, is amateur fare: videos of cats riding Roombas and kids playing Minecraft. Long-tail markets, for their part, are full of products that can’t compete: old, failed films and television shows, say, that don’t stand a chance against new blockbusters such as Avatar or The Sopranos. And digital piracy, while certainly harmful to sales, impacts all of the studios equally and therefore shouldn’t upset the competitive balance.

“But in fact this perfect storm has changed everything. Content is no longer hard to produce or easy to control because of the technological revolutions in hardware and software that we’re now witnessing. Distribution is also much easier now: long-tail markets make it possible to allow everything to be put up for sale, a big shift from the limited capacity in movie theaters and limited space on television broadcast channels. And thanks to digital piracy, it’s much harder to maintain the profit from the staggered release windows that are fundamental to all of the entertainment industry’s existing business models.”

For the benefit of existing entertainment companies, Smith and Telang provide a series of well-thought-through recommendations in their closing chapters. As someone who has been in the entertainment business for 30 years, it feels clear to me that Smith and Telang’s data are excellent and their conclusions are inevitable. Will movie studios, broadcast networks, music labels, and publishing companies view this book as the new rule of the road or the raving of Cassandra? Time will tell — and for legacy companies, time is running out.

Image: The cast of ‘Arrested Development,’ a series Netflix picked up after it was cancelled on Fox’s broadcast network. Why did Netflix do that? They had the data. Image courtesy 20th Century Fox TV.