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No Abyssness Like Show Abyssness

By Larry Sivitz

Tuning in the Emmy Awards gala over the weekend brought to mind a definite incongruity between Hollywood’s production community and Seattle’s own populace of web-development and multimedia talent.

Look behind the scenes, or screens in our case, of a Web “production” and you’ll find a diverse team at work. Indeed, everyone who works in software or interactive media, including multimedia, Web design, Web delivery and even E-commerce is, by definition, an integral part of a Web-“show’s” performance. It is the alliance of Northwest knowledge-workers across many industries, right up to the ISPs, that is responsible for putting the finished product on the wire.

That points out a very big difference between Hollywood-based show biz and Internet productions. To work in “the bizness,” you must first and foremost become a card-carrying member of an entertainment labor union or “guild,” generally starting at the bottom of the ranks as a lowly apprentice or minimum-scale wage earner. That’s the entertainment industry’s infamous Catch-22 — you can’t work in the business unless you have a union card, and you can’t have a card unless you work in the business. The requirement is that, whether a key grip or prop master, electrician or sound editor, cinematographer or screen extra, you must also be a member in good standing of your trade guild and be paying regular dues in real dollars to the guild’s coffers. The same goes for the Directors’ Guild, the Writers’ Guild, or the better known SAG or Screen Actors’ Guild, which are all venerated Hollywood institutions.

The guilds govern the relationships between the producer/employer and creator/employee and represent the members in a dispute. They establish minimum payment requirements, strike collective bargaining agreements, administer syndication royalties and provide medical and pharmaceutical coverage for the likes of Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorcese and Whoopi Goldberg (who is a member of both the Writers’ and Directors’ Guilds), to name but a few. In exchange for their intermediation, the guilds siphon off as much as 2.5% of the gross revenue earned by their members, which is tithed to the general fund out of every show business paycheck.

A scan of the digital motion-pixel studios clustered around the Northwest’s Silicon Forest, including (the former) AtomFilms.com, Honkworm.com, Sierra Studios, Humongous Entertainment, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, TheDial, and Vindigo.com, reveals no other requirement for working in the Web-ertainment industry than the skill set of a digital laborer (plus a willingness to work long hours). Residing outside the Hollywood guild-ocracy, are we behaving like scabs who would cross a fellow performer’s picket line without remorse? And do the guilds want a cut of the interactive industry’s entertainment-oriented production dollar? The answer is “yes,” and “no.”

Thus far, the guilds have not demanded that Web development companies pay a minimum scale for union talent. Hollywood actors, voiceover artists, special effect gurus and production aces (to name but a few) are being given “permission” to work on Web productions at any pay rate they can negotiate for their talents. However, the guilds have asked Web producers to contribute 1.5% of what they pay tforthis talent (the same as their Holllywood counterparts) to fund the guilds’ health insurance plans and other benefits. How’s it working out so far? Not very well. Most Web producers have shied away from building relationships with the guilds for fear of entanglements, like being earmarked for payments and residuals in the future.

Perhaps it’s time for the Web’s “show business” industry to create its own academy of digital arts and sciences, present its own Academy of Internet Awards, and put in place a standard for pay rates, residuals, and insurance coverage for its talent.

“I have so many people to thank,” would gush the producers at Seattle’s annual gala, “the folks at Loudeye (for best sound editing in a motion pixel production), and PhotoDisc (for best set design), and Activate, for best cinematic streaming, and RealNetworks, for best post-production.”

Last but hardly least, technology has also elevated the do-it-yourself auteur to the role of independent producer of his/her own in-house (and in-home) productions. Don’t laugh. These works are viewable over prime time Web bandwidth, on the Intern-Net, TV’s “fifth” network.

Less than a year ago, Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks SKG and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment collaborated on a massively funded broadband play named Pop.com in the digial forest The new entity planned to revolve around a variety of short streaming video segments, which they called “pops,” and provide live Web events, animation, video on-demand, instant messaging, chat rooms and other interactive elements.

Then last week, it was announced that Pop.com had popped and fizzled. Rumors had it that the two sides of the production table looked at the product from such different points of view, little progress was being made.

Whether the business of entertainment can transform itself from plutocracy to plurality is one of the most important issues in defining the future of Hollywood, entertainment, music and the Web as we know it. In this new day of multimedia computer-based entertainment, Seattle is likely to find itself with every bit as much say, and sway, as Hollywood.

Larry Sivitz is managing editor of Seattle24x7.