Going Guild at Digital Hollywood
No matter what your medium or cutting-edge platform, the Guild’s got you covered.

The Guild has recently revamped its new media webpage. This new and improved online destination features a handy Checklist for New Media Projects to outline how to get your writing services for new media covered by the Guild, as well as easy-to-digest fact sheets for original and derivative programs made for new media, and traditional programming reused in new media. The overhauled webpage also features the Guild’s recent Guide to New Media, covering the terms and conditions for hiring writers on new media projects under the 2008 MBA in plain language, as well as a new media-centric calendar of events.

The WGAW also recently launched its own New Media Twitter feed: follow us at http://twitter.com/WGAnewmedia to get the latest Guild updates, industry news, and more.

You can also stay abreast of the WGAW’s activities in the new media space by signing up for our New Media Updates List.

If members or producers have questions about working in the digital space, how to get their work covered by the WGA, or employing WGA writers for new media projects, they should contact Tamara Krinsky.

For many writers, trying to navigate the brave new world of digital media can seem a bit daunting no matter what your age or level of tech savvy. To help demystify the process of writing, producing, and getting your new media work covered under a WGA contract, much less monetizing it, WGAW reps and members recently participated in the Spring 2010 edition of the Digital Hollywood Content Summit, aiming to show writers just how easy it is to “go Guild,” as well as showcase today’s online video writer-producer success stories to empower today’s new crop of content creators.

Photo: Gerber Rigler
(L-R): Writer-producer-actors Jason and Randy Sklar (Back on Topps) give the new media lowdown at “The Writer as Entrepreneur” panel.

Held May 3-6, 2010, at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, Digital Hollywood has emerged as one of the industry’s leading conference destinations targeted to creative content creators, filmmakers, producers, writers, and actors working at the intersection of film, television, and new media. As part of its ongoing commitment to protecting and advancing the interests of writers as the new media space evolves, the WGAW sponsored two powerhouse panels during the latest multi-day confab.

Dubbed “Going Pro – A Guide to Making Your Web Series with the Guilds,” the day’s first informative panel featured WGAW and SAG reps collectively. On hand were WGAW New Media Program Manager Tamara Krinsky and Contracts Administrator Elisabeth Flack to give filmmakers in the audience the lowdown on minimums, residuals, pension & health contributions, and the basics of negotiating new media contracts that are flexible enough to fit any size production budget. Other panelists for the morning session included SAG National Director/New Media Mark Friedlander; SAG Director of Organizing Nayla Wren; new media writer/director/producer Patrick Doody; Cohn & Gardner entertainment attorney Bradley Garrett, who reps new media content creators; and moderator Abrams Artists Agency new media agent Brandon Martinez.

What Exactly is “New Media?”

During the last round of contract negotiations, the WGA won jurisdiction over new media, securing such work going forward in the WGA’s 2008 Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA). What exactly is “new media” – and does it differ from traditional media? Essentially, new media includes all writing of audio-visual production intended for the Internet, mobile devices, evolving technological devices, or any other platform defined as “new media” by the industry as of the start of the latest MBA.

Within the digital world, there are three primary “buckets of content” that apply to writers, according to Krinsky: original (new programming made for the web), derivative (based on an existing TV show), or traditional reuse (i.e., watching an episode of ABC’s Lost online via Hulu). All three types of new media content are covered by the Guild, with each category possessing specific stipulations under the MBA pertaining to minimums, residuals, credits, pension & health contributions, separated rights, and more.

While these items sound complicated, Flack reminded the audience that “the Guild’s rules covering new media are very simple and flexible and, if you’re dealing with original content, the rates and minimums are negotiable.”

SAG’s Wren echoed this approach: “The lower the budget, the less hoops we’ll make you jump through. We want to help you grow your company and produce a professional program.”

It’s (Not) Complicated

Photo: Gerber Rigler
Writer-producer-actress Ruth Livier (Ylse) shares her new media success story.

How to get started? WGAW member Doody, a showrunner for new web series Ghostfacers, an online spin-off of the CW’s Supernatural TV series, encouraged writers to get the in the game sooner than later: “If you’re going to go union, call them before you do anything, get into it early and start the conversation early. It will definitely make things easier for you [as a filmmaker] later on,” he told the audience. Based on his own positive experience, Doody said the process of going union – making sure this project was being produced by a Guild signatory company – was both quick and painless: “I made a few calls and emails, and 72 hours later, we were Guild signatory,” with his web series covered by the WGA, SAG, DGA, and IA. Multi-guild coverage is not uncommon for digital content that’s derivative of existing TV series from major studios and/or networks.

SAG’s Friedlander concurred with Doody’s advice to call early. Even if you’re just at the idea stage, “Just pick up the phone and call us or email us,” he insisted, then, wondered aloud: “Could we fit all the relevant aspects of our new media contract into a Tweet?”

That initial phone call is usually made by one of two different parties: the writer – either a WGAW member working in new media, as well as non-member writers working in new media hoping to join the Guild, or a producer looking to hire WGA members. Sometimes, these two entities are one and the same, as the digital realm has proven to be a fertile one for those writers looking to jump-start their own projects and the WGAW is “very supportive of the writer as entrepreneur,” said Krinsky.

Bottom line: whether you’re producing your project yourself or working as a writer-for-hire, if you’re a WGA member, your project must be under MBA jurisdiction – after all, the MBA is “designed to protect you as a creative professional and your work as we move forward and explore monetizing content on different platforms,” Krinsky said. So if your breakout episodic web series is later edited together into a long form piece that’s released on DVD, this move triggers standard writers’ residuals paid at the current DVD rate – just another example of how the WGA’s MBA helps ensure that “if they get paid, we get paid,” even in the digital age.

Just Do It

The morning’s second WGAW-hosted panel, “The Writer as Entrepreneur – Taking Control of Your Career in the Web 2.0 Era,” was a lively conversation between some of today's top writers exploring aspects of the entrepreneurial writer in the digital age. Moderated by filmmaker/author F.X. Feeney, the panel was comprised of innovative writers who’ve used today’s barrier-breaking, boundary-pushing new media format to realize their diverse creative visions. Featured were Guild members Ruth Livier (writer/producer/actress of web series Ylse), Randy and Jason Sklar (writers/producers/actors of such web series as Back on Topps and ESPN Classics’ Cheap Seats), and Christian Taylor (writer/director/producer of web series Valemont and creator of New Amsterdam), as well as associate member David Fickas (writer/director/producer/actor of web series The Iceman Chronicles), and Canadian writer Kaleena Kiff (writer/director/producer of web series Riese),

In the age of YouTube, Hulu, Crackle, and MyDamnChannel, new media outlets and digital technologies provide writers increased opportunities to become true creative entrepreneurs, armed with the tools and distribution channels necessary to connect directly with audiences – and often without studio/network intervention – like never before. As a result, creators of “traditional” media have had to expand their roles, taking a more proactive stance to realize their pet projects. While strong storytelling is still at the heart of any successful business model, there are now a whole other range of creative and business skills writers need to develop in order to have a solid online career, much less maintain the often-challenging balancing act of juggling multi-hyphenate roles of writer/creator/producer/actor.

Photo: Gerber Rigler
(L-R): WGAW members/new media entrepreneurs Randy Sklar, Christian Taylor, and Ruth Livier greet the audience at Digital Hollywood’s spring 2010 new media content summit.

The result of this profound shift in the industry means that “the means of production are now in the hands of creators, where you can create your own body of work,” commented Feeney. He compared today’s burgeoning new media/web entertainment programming to the old-school craft of comic strips: the ability to hold an audience’s attention by employing narrative in “shorts bursts that build to a punch line,” then ironically added, “although comic strips have died along with newspapers.”

Twin brothers Randy and Jason Sklar are the dynamic duo behind the Streamy-winning online series Back on Topps, which regularly receives two-to-three million hits online via MyDamnChannel. Set in the wacky world of the real-life bubblegum trading cards empire (hence the Topps product integration tie-in), the comedy series explores such uproarious scenarios as “pitching a line of Obama trading cards to Rahm Emmanuel via speakerphone.”

Latina writer-producer Livier’s bilingual breakthrough web series, Ylse, is casually ground-breaking, boldly busting racial and cultural stereotypes without making too much fuss about it. The acclaimed online comedy series revolves around a fictional talk show host who dreams of being the next Oprah “once studio executives finally figure out how to pronounce Yl-se.” The ability of Livier’s series’ to balance two cultures is evidenced in the fact that the show’s dialogue is heard in “Spanglish” with subtitles in both English and Spanish, a move that, according to Livier, has translated into “building bridges” in the U.S., Latin America, and around the world. Such is the case for new media’s ability to achieve a global audience through platforms not available to writers and other creative artists even a few years ago.

For writer-producer Kaleena Kiff, co-creator of web series Riese, a self-described “steampunk fairytale,” the rise of new media has been nothing less than “the democratization of creation for writers.”

In Taylor’s case working on MTV.com’s popular Valemont web series, he was approached by new media start-up Electric Farm, which had already sold the Twilight-esque “vampires in college” concept to MTV, as well as to telecomm major Verizon, who came aboard early on the project as a show sponsor. No matter who’s paying the bills, for Taylor the allure was, “We could create a show that’s a real show – not simply a movie that’s cut-up and released on the web” – as has been increasingly the case from online to home-video. “After all, it’s tough to come up with a cliffhanger every two minutes,” he added.

Dollars & Sense

Valemont had a unique distribution and marketing strategy, beginning life as two-minute “advertising pods” that first aired as interstitials between MTV hits The Hills and The City, prior to launching its own 35-episode online run. After its success online, MTV is now set to turn Valemont into a “movie of the week” to air on the Viacom-owned network later this year.

Typically, the connection between new media and corporate advertising, stealth and otherwise, is a central factor in production budget funding in the digital realm. Currently, one of the primary ways that many digital content creators find funding to get their projects off the ground is by securing corporate sponsors early on who are hot to reach new audiences in alternative ways. For Back on Topps, aside from the obvious Topps promo tie-in, the Sklar bros incorporated such sponsors as Skype and Dick’s Sporting Goods, working them into the series’ plotlines or locations. Potential product integration issues aside, according to the Sklars, the trick for writers is to find organic, unexpected ways to work products into new media programming that won’t compromise content – often even at the comic expense of the sponsors themselves.

Fickas’ offbeat, quirky comedy-noir web series The Iceman Cometh, for which he is the co-writer, director, and star, has been described as “Twin Peaks…but with more murders.” Having originally premiered on Hulu in 2009, the series recently re-launched on MyDamnChannel in February (as part of a larger deal with the Fox TV Studios-owned company) to critical acclaim and a growing online audience. “I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but there’s some deep stuff down in Blythe, Arizona,” teased Fickas, who has also developed branded content for MSN and directed digital programming for Strike.TV.

Thinking outside the box, Kiff spoke of the new “transmedia” opportunities for digital content – not just the web series’ themselves, but a multi-media franchise that encompasses TV, apps, graphic novels, motion comics, and more – creating a whole world that fans can get to know, immerse themselves and get lost in – all the while building your brand, growing your audience, and monetizing your content simultaneously. “Our viewers live online – it’s how they want to experience their content,” she explained.

For the Sklar bros, working in the new media world and writing/producing a web series gives a sense of déjà vu: “This is what it must have felt like to make an indie film back in the ‘80s” – that same maverick entrepreneurial spirit and sense of community. Recalling their dismal experience with Held Up, a comedy TV pilot at Comedy Central that was never picked up, Randy Sklar admitted, “I would now rather do a web series than work on a pilot that sits on a shelf that only a dozen people might ever see.”

Indeed, one of the potent allures of new media is that it provides a kind of instant gratification as never before: seeing your own creative vision realized, undiluted and unedited for the most part, and finding a major audience at relatively minimal production and marketing costs, as compared to TV and film. “When it comes down it, clarity of voice…a strong voice, that’s what people really respond to,” admitted Jason Sklar. And that’s exactly what you often find in the new media space: writers’ visions realized, with minimal interference from page to shoot to final product.

The Sklars’ shared creative edict is often: “Cut, cut, cut! If you can lose it and not miss it, then you probably don’t need it,” they advised. Ironically, for many writers, the time constraints that come with the new media territory – where web series routinely run approximately four-to-six minutes per episode – can prove to be liberating. It’s also challenging, as writers constantly feel the pressure, according to Taylor, “where every second has to be amazing” in order to hold a Twitter-era’s audience’s increasingly impatient short attention span.

Still, “Restrictions can be a giant opportunity,” said Livier. In fact, several writers agreed that TV is now taking a cue from new media, where many TV episodes, at least on cable, are becoming shorter – witness HBO’s The Life & Times of Tim.

Taylor found his recent experience working on Valemont very positive and even educational: “These kinds of [new media] projects allow you amazing creative freedom that you can’t find anywhere else. You often hear ‘Do what you want.’ It does feel like the Gold Rush, like the Wild West – and with none of those crazy studio notes!”

Fickas agreed, noting that, “The new media climate is very much non-fear-based,” where there’s little second-guessing; instead, writers are free to “make the show you really want to see.”

Freed from creative and corporate reins, many writers are doing some of their best work yet on the web – to the point where the Sklar bros would like to see a day when audiences cease to compare web series to TV or film, but concede that “it’s all just content – where you love a web series in the same way that you love your favorite TV show or movie.”

After all, “audiences dictate what succeeds and what doesn’t – but now [as a content creator] you can just put it out there and discover the audience for your work is much larger and more diverse than you ever imagined,” said Livier. “Now everyone has an opportunity to tell their story, to find their own voice, and reach an audience.

What are you waiting for?