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Hollywood writers abandon Hollywood for web

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Unhappy with the way they've been treated by Hollywood's old school film and television producers, more than a few big name American movie and TV writers are bootstrapping startups in an effort to distribute their own material. And naturally, they plan on distributing via the web.

As American TV addicts know all too well, the Writers Guild of America is nearly three months into an epic strike against Hollywood's film and TV producers, and though there are rumblings that this walkout will soon end, it's already spawned at least three new writer-driven ventures intent on using the good ol' internet to bypass the traditional studios.

One such venture is Virtual Artists, a company that bills itself as a marriage of "A-list writers from Hollywood" and "A-list writers of free/open source software."

The Hollywood A-listers include Neal Baer, whose credits include TV extravaganzas Law & Order: SVU, ER, and China Beach; Susannah Grant, whose credits include the feature films Erin Brockovitch, Charlotte's Web, and Pocahontas; John Logan, a writer on Sweeney Todd, The Aviator, and Gladiator; and Ron Bass, an Oscar winner whose credits include Rain Man, Joy Luck Club, My Best Friend's Wedding.

But seasoned Reg readers will be much more impressed with the open source types, including Brian Behlendorf, founder of the Apache Project, and Henry Poole, a Free Software Foundation board member.

Like similar ventures, such as Hollywood Disrupted and Founders Media Group, Virtual Artists is a direct result of the writer's strike. Another founding member, Aaron Mendelson, co-creator of the Air Bud franchise, serves on the board of the Writer's Guild and is part of the strike's negotiating committee.

While working on Witness, a human-rights video site backed by pop singer Peter Gabriel, Henry Poole was introduced to Mendelson. "Aaron told me about what had been going on with the writers and I described what I was trying to do online," Poole says. "And eventually, many of the writers decided to come together to form their own studio.

"There's a real interest in exploring different business models online. The traditional business model is dying in its current form, so the writers want to explore a new field." The writer's guild is striking in part to receive better pay when the old school media companies send their their films and TV shows across the net.

How will new ventures like Virtual Artist leverage the net? That's yet to be seen. Virtual Artists will likely build its own video site, but it's exploring other avenues as well. "We're definitely working on our own infrastructure," Poole explains, "but we're also looking at distribution to other sites."

Whatever they end up doing, they'll end up doing it with open source software. Poole is adamant that the big studios have so far been unable to leverage the power of the web, because they don't understand how online software works. "On the internet, the rules are different. The studios don't understand yet how to play in this space where you have a million screens to launch something on, rather than 1000 screens - where you have hundreds of thousands of network hubs and hundreds of thousands of individuals who have tremendous influence, rather than just a few cable operators.

"They're used to doing things the old way, and they don't really know to make money on the internet."

The fledgling company is looking at three broad categories of free software. "One is distribution systems, including peer-to-peer distribution," Poole says. "But we're also looking for developers and maintainers of software packages that enable collaboration. And the third category is community building. As developers have worked in community software projects, we're quite interested opening up a new way for audiences to related to creators."

The Reg supports any effort to bypass the traditional media giants. But our worry is that, as they attempt to build their own web-based distribution companies, writers and other artists will simply end up in the pocket of new-age corporate behemoths like Google, Apple, Amazon, and YaMicrohoosoft!.

Yes, the web allows for self-distribution. But it isn't hard to envision a web where you can't make money from online video unless you sell your soul to the giants of the internet. Google owns YouTube. Apple runs iTunes. And so often, when independent services gain a little traction, they get gobbled up in much the same way YouTube was gobbled up by Google. Just last month, Amazon's Internet Movie Database (IMDb) subsidiary ate the indie film site Withoutabox.

Are web-minded film and TV writers trading one evil for another? ®

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