Keynote: Harry Shearer
Thanks very much. I’m honored to have been asked to speak you today. As a humble laborer in the twisted vineyards of comedy, there’s nothing really new I can tell you. So, I invite you to enjoy a few minutes not so much of enlightenment, but more of a slightly dyspeptic pep talk.
The concept of artists getting together has a checkered history at best. After all, we never had medieval guilds. We had patrons.
It wasn’t until Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and two other superstars of the silent screen decided they’d had enough of the behavior of the first generation of film moguls and formed their own company, United Artists, that the concept got its first road test. The road was rocky. Most actors and writers, it turns out, make terrible businessmen; almost as bad as businessmen make actors and writers. The company was ultimately swallowed up by a traditional studio, restoring the traditional position of creatives as petitioners for the favors of the mighty. The patrons were back in power.
The past couple of months’ worth of news stories have drawn back the curtain on the behavior of certain members of the patrons’ ranks, leading to the rapid and inglorious defenestration of several of them. Harvey Weinstein led the parade, with a few dozen actresses complaining of his sexual misdeeds. Racing ahead in the victim derby has been producer director James Toback, with more than three hundred notches on his malodorous pistol. Kevin Spacey. Bret Ratner. Dustin freaking Hoffman. Louis f’ing C. K. Some days I think I may be the last man standing in showbiz. The public now knows, or has re-learned, that the powerful in Hollywood can and often will take advantage of the less powerful in highly unpleasant physical ways. Unpleasant not just for the victims, but even for the nearby potted palms.
It took actress Molly Ringwald, writing in the New Yorker, to make a crucial connection. She wrote about her experience with the early Harvey Weinstein, just launching his career. He didn’t assault me, Ringwald reports, although she was treated to his bullying jerk behavior on set.
The resulting film bombed at the box office. But, she said, she learned that people who have gross points in a movie make money even if the film tanks. Ringwald learned that because her lawyer called her a year after the movie’s release with the news that Weinstein had not yet paid Ringwald the money he owed her.
I had been planning to say at this meeting that what Harvey did to young actresses physically, his colleagues in studio front offices do to men and women, young and old, financially. Molly Ringwald had just made that point concrete.
Creatives have made some moves to unite against the powerful men, and very occasional women, who determined our fates. We started forming unions in the 1930s, when that was still a dangerous idea, at least in the US. Auto workers were getting beaten up for unionizing. The messaging of the unions sometimes left a lot to be desired. Unlike the militant-sounding industrial groupings of the US and UK, the actors union’s name resulted in an unfortunate acronym: SAG. Sir, the man from SAG is here, and the man from WILT is waiting.
A serious attack on creative people’s rights actually came from inside the labor movement during the time when Ronald Reagan—I think you may have heard of him—was president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. We later learned that he was serving the interests of Hollywood’s chief mogul of the time, Lew Wasserman, whose MCA, thanks to Reagan’s waiving of SAG rules, was allowed to be both a talent agency and a film studio. As a further favor to Wasserman, Reagan’s SAG ended up excluding movies made before 1948 from the requirement to pay residuals.
The Hollywood unions have a more enduring weakness: the vast majority of their members either don’t work or work at entry-level jobs. Ownership of the copyright, or more control over their image and likeness, or payment for uses in unimaginable new media in countries Americans can’t find on a map— they’re all far down the list of those members’ priorities. The main one is always the same: a slight increase in the basic minimum scale.
And of course, unions are national organizations, being squeezed on one side by three decades of anti-union pressure from the US and UK governments and on the other by the increasing pace of globalization. When the man from SAG sits across the table from the man from 21st Century Fox, it very accurately mimics the default state of the industry: a dramatic asymmetry of power between those on the creative and business sides.
Because the dirty little non-secret of our industry is that many of if not most of us—writers, actors, musicians, maybe even directors—would do this work for free. In fact, we do, all the time—theater workshops, endless auditions, jam sessions after hours, creating demo reels, ghost-writing on spec—we prove it every day: we want to do this work no matter what. Call it love, call it desperation, call it a sickness or a gift—the business guys know it. They can smell it. And, by the way, they wouldn’t do their jobs for free if you paid them.
That’s where we are. Where can we go? We get bigger, we get global. Okay, and then? Why would the global business guys talk to us as anything but petitioning global peasants? No reason in the world, unless the current, long-standing business model—screw the talent, financially and otherwise—is successfully challenged, and probably more than once.
That’s the little task I’ve taken on. As you may have heard, unless we’ve totally wasted our publicity budget, my colleagues and I are suing a large company over the earnings of a small film called “This Is Spinal Tap”.
I won’t name the company, they can spend their own publicity budget. The four of us created the characters, many of the situations, and most of the songs long before there was any deal with any studio.
We created what’s now known as the mockumentary form, in order to tell the story of a mediocre English heavy rock band on a somewhat disastrous North American tour in the most believable way. In 1982, my three partners and I signed an agreement with Embassy Pictures, Inc. for the production, financing and distribution of This Is Spinal Tap. The agreement ensured profit participation payments, at the rate of 40 percent of net receipts, to us based on all sources of revenue, including merchandise and music.
Three-plus decades later, the film still shows in theaters on cable television, many of its more famous pieces of dialogue are almost overly familiar catch-phrases, and people on Twitter are telling me how many copies of he film they’ve bought, in every different format in which it keeps, somehow, being released. The film’s accolades include being named in the New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Greatest Movies Ever Made list, Total Film’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time list, and achieving the coveted Number One spot on Time Out London’s 100 Best Comedy Movies list. In 2002, the US Library of Congress (the world’s largest cultural collection), designated it as a culturally, historically or aesthetically significant film. It was produced on a shoestring budget of US$2.25 million.
Yet This Is Spinal Tap and the music and merchandise that it and the band have spawned, earned tens of millions of dollars in revenue, according to our complaint – through re-releases, album and singles sales, merchandise sales, and distribution of the film in various formats, across the globe over the course of the last 32 years. However, these profits were not fairly shared with the four co-creators, cast or crew. In fact now, more than three decades later, we can count what we’ve been paid from the proceeds of what has turned out to be a quite successful film and its associated sound recordings in double digits.
Let me be fair: high double digits.
I’m not going to litigate the details of the case here, lest my attorney have a heart attack. But it’s important to point out that the only thing that distinguishes our experience from that of our fellow creators is the fact that, through many strokes of luck, we’re in a position to challenge what’s happened to us. Some numbers will tell the story: In 2013, EU writers and directors shared 0.37% of the EU audiovisual sector revenues which totaled €122 BILLION. I’m sure it must have gone up more recently, maybe even to 0.38% .
But don’t cry for them, Argentina. US writers and directors enjoyed, as a percentage of the $632 BILLION US audiovisual market: a share equaling 0.34%. Yes, it’s true—the US may no longer be leading in many other areas of human achievement, but when it comes to screwing the talent, We’re Number One!
One successful lawsuit—obviously, I’m thinking positive thoughts here—or even several won’t solve this structural problem in our industry. But my experience so far with our legal action tells me one thing: people who have helped create popular entertainment can garner important public attention for these issues. When the audience sees the stars/creators of a movie or television show they very much like fighting against anonymous corporate predators, something amazing can happen: a little bit of that built-in asymmetry of the industry can get temporarily reversed.
One way that can happen is through a website our team has created. It’s called Fairness Rocks. Its aim is simple and grandiose. We want to collect the stories of writers, directors, musicians who have been subjected to financial Weinsteinism. The point is to keep attracting the media’s attention to an incessant drumbeat of these stories, to pound home, hopefully in 4/4/ time, the message that this is what’s happening to the people who devote their lives to creating the entertainment you love.
I also think it’s high time we correct a basic messaging error . We’ve let the guys in the business offices make off with something very valuable that we owned—the title of creators. It started, of course, when the US Writers Guild turned the copyright over to the producers, allowing Fox and Warners and Disney and Sony and the others to say that they are the “authors” of their films and TV shows. And ever since they have hidden their financial predation under the rubric of “creators”. We even saw, during the Napster era, record companies posing as the defenders of creators’ rights. Based on my personal experience and years of observation, record executives wouldn’t recognize a creative right if it crawled up their rump and bit them in the pancreas.
So I suggest we re-brand ourselves, using the sometimes pejorative name they call us—namely, the talent. Or, as it sometimes comes out of the mouths of the Weinsteins of the world, a “piece of talent”. It focuses the public’s attention on what we all bring to the table. The producers may control the green lights of the world, but we control the processes that make something where there was nothing. We are The Talent.
A “me-too” movement among some well-known talent has the potential to create a tipping point analogous to the current “Weinstein effect”. For our part, my team, and the journalists who’ve done stories on our legal action thus far, have all been careful to make one crucial point: that we were not being singled out or picked on, that, on the contrary, our experience is business as usual. In fact, it is the very business model of our industry.
Maybe that’s why so many companies from other industries—from Coca-Cola to Sony to Rupert Murdoch’s news empire—have seen and continue to see the business of ripping off the talent as a highly attractive investment.
Some of you here today have to maintain business-like relationships with those on the other side of the table, to be moderate and responsible, to get your jobs done. The rest of you can join me in denouncing the financial predators of our business every chance you get.
My experience with The Simpsons has taught me that people on our side of the fence only get what they deserve when they stay united. I look at the unity of the cast from Friends and can only weep with envy. So craft divisions and national divisions are our enemy every bit as much as the financial predators. We need to be, and to stay, united.
Let’s go get ‘em. Thank you.
© Harry Shearer 2017