I wrote last week about my recent nomination in the Australian Writer’s Guild AWGIE awards. Once the excitement of the nomination calmed down i was prompted to think about the role such awards and organisations like the Australian Writers Guild (along with its brethren guilds around the world) play in the online digital age…?
Writers Guilds serve a number of important roles in the professional lives of writers. There’s the obvious legal and logistical functions concerning contracts, copyright and minimum standards for payment and agreements. Then overlaying this pragmatic function is a wider role of industry representation and shaping policy concerning the creative arts and industry directions. And we also cannot overlook the vital role the Guilds play in developing talent and continuing education and development of writers and the culture of performance writing.
In doing this Writers Guilds have long had a very specific and formal framework for membership and recognition of both writers and their work. Membership and Recognition was framed by Broadcast and Theatrical Presentation. Generally speaking, a writer can only become a full member of a Writers Guild once they have had a defined amount of professional material Broadcast or Theatrically presented. Writers without such ‘credits’ or ‘air-time’ cannot be full members but can be Associate Members until such time as they meet the requirements. In the age of Radio stations, Cinemas and Theatre Companies this framework made sense and it worked. The natural gatekeepers of theatrical release and broadcast served as a filtration process to separate out professional work and create a specific benchmark.
The principle is, that it’s simply not useful for a Guild to be open to anyone without benchmarks of what qualifies for membership. It weakens the Guild’s power to influence and represent professional work, to lobby governments and industry with weight or to negotiate on behalf of writers with major corporate entities such as movie studios. So the high benchmarks to entry are crucially important and I would not be one to argue such benchmarks should be ‘lowered’.
But…. This is the online digital age. An age where the hierarchy that positions the Theatrical Release and the Broadcast Transmission at the top of a pyramid is quickly evaporating. In an age of multi-platform, cross-platform and transmedia online experiences what role does the Writers Guild play? More importantly, in an age where gatekeepers are dissolved and increasingly writers work directly to their audience without intermediary - such as Webseries and WebTV, online, downloadable, app-based and streaming media to a plethora of devices - how does a Writer’s Guild make distinction between what qualifies and what does not for Full Membership?
For example, it is very possible for a writer to have penned a 15 episode webseries that attracted hundreds of thousands of regular viewers, and even be presented under an exclusive license on a dedicated WebTV channel that feeds directly into major VOD platforms such as Xbox live - channels which have a significantly greater audience reach than a broadcast time-slot - and yet this would not qualify them for Full Guild Membership.
In simple terms, a writer may have countless credits for online writing and yet because their work did not pass through the gates of Theatrical Release or traditional Broadcast, they may not eligible to either be a member of the Guild or be represented by the Guild in professional matters.
It’s hard to argue that the Theatrical release holds the significance it once did. In a great many instances theatrical release is little more than loss-leader advertising for DVD sales and broadcast rights. And I do find the idea of even discussing Opening Weekend Box Office numbers like some all-important measure, largely absurd in a multi-platform, time-shifted, on-demand digital age. But the more slippery term is this idea of ‘Broadcast’. In literal terms Broadcast simply means the sending of a message from a central point to many recipients; from a broadcast tower to many TV sets. But such a definition ties ‘Broadcasting’ to a very particular (and arguably old-fashioned) technology - that of broadcast radio waves sent through the air in a time-slot.
In the online era; broadcast has become a much more complex and technology-agnostic idea. A feature film available on BitTorrent (such as recent Australian horror film The Tunnel), a WebSeries available as an internet stream, a video series delivered as a downloadabale App or through a VOD online store, these are all essentially forms of ‘Broadcast’ delivery by literal definition - from one point to many points of reception.
But does this mean that anything put online qualifies a Writer for Guild membership? Few would ague the merits of that proposition. Yet to rule online work out altogether is plainly absurd, as is only recognizing online work if it is connected to, or under the auspices of, a traditional broadcaster.
One suggestion has been to treat online, multiplatform and interactive writing separately - operating under their own guilds. But i would argue this is dysfunctional as it it doesn’t help either arm of the screen media industries in a positive way. It doesn’t help skilled storytellers bring their craft to bare on new media forms. It keeps new media forms in a state of narrative immaturity. And it keeps a wedge in place to keep opportunities for paid creative writing work away from writers from other media. It also ignores the fact that before to long all ‘TV’ as we know it will be ‘online’; i.e. delivered over IP rather than Radio Waves.
Moreover I would argue one of the great problems with so called ‘New Media’ is that it has too long been treated as ‘the other’ by its own practitioners as much as by those looking over the fence from traditional screen media forms. This ‘otherness’ drives a creative culture focused on perpetuating what is ‘different’ rather than building upon what is ‘consistent’. The result is a whole lot of ‘baby out with he bath water’ thinking that delivers new media, multi platform, transmedia and interactive narratives that are, frankly, all too often gimmicky, disposable and uncompelling because they fail or refuse to build upon our long narrative traditions.
I was at a Writers Guild conference a couple of years go and heard a speaker present on he topic of writing interactive and multi platform narratives. They asserted that a) “we have to rethink everything we know about telling stories” and b) “life is not linear so why should our stories be?”
Now, these two statements concerned me greatly on a number of levels. The first was that the conference was full largely of very experienced writers of tv and film who collectively possessed a wealth of experience and expertise. Thus by asserting that we should “rethink everything we know” struck me as an intolerably arrogant thing to assert; hideously dismissive of a centuries of storytelling knowledge as if a new technology could sweep it into obsolescence. Moreover, as I have written about before, such verbose statements have no precedent in history. Never has a new technology for storytelling replaced or made obsolete any other form. Despite TV and the internet we still have move cinemas, theatres and radio.
Worse still, the statement that “life is not linear so why should our stories be?” is painfully absurd and seemingly born from a desire for grandiose statements rather than clear thinking. Life is, in fact, utterly linear. Birth to Death it is entirely 1 directional. But beyond the semantics of a bad choice of phrasing it’s also a statement that fails to recognise that so called non-linear storytelling is, in fact, extremely rare. Any story still relies on causality - that A has to happen before B and that B happened because of A. Any so called non-linear narrative still absolutely relies on this principle. There may be multiple parallel narratives or an audience may be able to choose one direction over another and lead to a different outcome, but the outcome is still the result of a casual chain of events and actions. There is nothing “non-linear” about a story regardless of whether it is a Movie or a Video Game. A still has to happen before B and event B happens because of choice or action A.
The hyperbole of this kind of thinking of new media as the ‘other’, somehow fundamentally different from everything else, is so much of the problem. it speaks to the need for a unified and Inclusive approach of institutions such as Writers Guilds to ensure that our future screen narrative experiences are standing on the shoulders of giants rather than ignorantly re-inventing the wheel. When ABC are now commissioning iView WebTV exclusive content, ISP’s have become broadcasters, WebSeries projects are attracting Oscar Winning DoP’s, games are being designed by New York Times best-selling novelists and huge Hollywood stars like Seinfeld and Kiefer Sutherland are producing and performing in WebTV dramas and comedies, we undoubtably have a key role of Writers Guilds to play. The challenge is how to design a framework for membership that is inclusive of new media forms and define what counts in the online space as the equivalent of a ‘broadcast credit”.