Well the good news is… things aren’t getting any worse. Not that there was much scope for the spec script market to fall any more. Universal and Sony have used up their development budgets for this year, or had it taken away form them The other studios aren’t faring much better. So far this year, the proportion of scripts that have gone out wide and sold, hovers at around 1%. That’s about the same figure during the writers strike. Dire news, but at least it’s honest.
Although the persistent economic storm clouds are gradually starting to lift, with major companies beginning to recapitalize, things should turn in the new year. Progress is likely to be slow as we still face the possibility of a double dip in the economic recovery. You know things are bad when the top tenpercentaries are selling single single digit numbers of projects. Scripts are still being circulated so that writers can display their wares. Make sure you’re one of them and get as many query letters out there as possible, hopefully even a few reads. We still need to market ourselves and network like crazy.
The screenwriting landscape has changed dramatically since the WGA strike of 2008. Television networks are relying on reality tv shows despite audience drops of around 20%. Reality tv shows can cost less than half that of scripted dramas, so are highly profitable. Networks have learnt to live without us. Where major shows used to hire 10-12 writers, the number has dropped by around 30 -40%. The number of pilots commissioned by the television networks has fallen by a similar amount. The good news is that the best television writing around these days is in cable television. Ratings of scripted cable shows have improved by around 20 -30%. Look at the Emmys, with shows like “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, “Weeds” and “Hung”. Go Showtime, HBO and AMC. You rock!
The feature business is murkier. Producers are finding it tougher to get projects off the ground in light of costs increasing by around 10% per year. Many studio films are unprofitable and are considered advertisements for DVD sales and merchandising, both of which faced decreasing sales in the current economic climate. Old school mentality dictated that you were only as successful as your last project. This adage no longer holds true. Studios are increasingly hedging their bets with franchises, sequels and comics. The beleaguered MGM studio is likely to be auctioned off shortly. In the absence of many serious buyers, it may not survive, given that it’s library is considered old and unlucrative. The worst case scenario would be one less buyer and one less lion roaring.
It has been argued that in 2009, it was easier to get a $200 million plus project like “Star Trek” greenlit than a $10 million indie. The “specialty” film business, which was previously swallowed up by the studios, have still not returned in vogue. Studio balance sheets show that the more you spend on a movie, the more money it earns to justify their budgets. Studios aren’t even sure where to spend their P & A dollars anymore. Given the declining ratings, traditional television advertising isn’t as effective as it once was. Virals and other internet campaigns are gradually being rolled out as audiences are spending more time on the internet.
However, we need this destruction to allow for new creation. How biblical! Old debt based business models need to altered to suit the new streamlined modern age. Can you believe that shows celebrating their 100th episode are really celebrating when they break even financially? How could that be sustainable? You gotta hand it to “The Simpsons” who are just recently starting to post profits. There’s creative accounting for you.
Still, the world will always need storytellers; that means us. However, the media in which we operate will change. As writers, we need to diversify our outlets. Consider writing for downloadable or streamed radio plays, webisodes, audio books on CD, mobile phone content. Nobody has figured out a viable business model for these formats, but they will in time. Necessity is the mother of invention, so we too must evolve. New foliage will sprout in the burnt out forest and we’ll be there to nurture it.