Tom Fontana: Dear Jim

This email was written by WGA member Tom Fontana, creator of the HBO series "Oz." Last week, the Artful Writer reprinted an email written to "Jim" from John Wells, unedited. The email below has also been reprinted in unedited form.

Dear Jim,

Yes, I, too, was left breathless by John's letter. As always, he makes many very valid points.

But there are a couple items which still trouble me and a number of my writer friends.

1. The original content jurisdiction seems like smoke and mirrors -- how many TV series (made for Internet) in the next three years will have a budget of $500,000? The highest budget I've heard for a current production is $350,000.

Besides, when has a budget ever come before a script is written? That means while directors will be hired under a DGA contract after the script is done and the budget is set, we writers will have no union contract to protect us. Wouldn't it be better to require all AMPTP members to use a WGA contract no matter what the budget is?

2. Streaming rate confuses me, but I'm no economist (I barely passed high school math). The $1200 seems too little, especially because, despite the bright sunset provision on the horizon, we all know that after our patience over DVDs and cable, we will have to live with the concept of a flat rate for the next twenty years.

This won't hurt guys like John or me, because as showrunners, we are also owners. But I wonder how the staff writers and, worse, freelancers will cope. And I find the 17 day / 24 day window to be exploitive, sending us to the well when it has already run dry.

I want the strike to end soon, I'm desperate to get back to work on my new series, but I want a fair deal.

People say the continuation of the strike will destroy our industry. Well, if thats true, why are the studios so willing to bring on the Apocalypse? Maybe in three years we'll have more data about Internet revenue, but why can't we be true partners in the uncertainty?

I realize I will be blogged to death but, hey, I can take the hits -- I have WGA pension and health care.

-Tom Fontana


hoopcooper said...

Exactly right...all the way down the line.

What a relief to read. I just wish that the guys that own the studios didn't own the network news as well. But the 3000 of us who will actually see this letter couldn't agree more.

Jake Hollywood said...


You don't have be an economist of even be great at math to figure out that every time somebody watches a streamed program (with ad revenue) that somebody is making money off the deal. It's common sense. The more hits to the program or movie, the more revenue. Simple. A this doesn't even include a nominal member viewing fee that's sure to be included as streaming becomes the avenue of choice for what is now the networks and studios.

The flat fee is a scam. The real money is in the number of "hits." And I've done some conservative numbers on potential ad revenues (which incidently wouldn't be able to be bypassed like you can via TiVo--advertisers and the studios have got to love that idea) and it's staggering. Even if the numbers were low (being conservative) in the first 30 days alone revenue could reach well into the millions. The internet is world-wide, millions and millions of people use it everyday, the revenue potential matches those numbers.

To settle for what the AMPTP is offering now would be equal to giving residuals away. And that's just insane.

Geo Rule said...

I do wonder about infrastructure costs re streaming at this point and how much it costs to deliver per set of eyeballs vs traditional TV. But that road could get you back into Hollywood accounting, which alas has a well-earned evil reputation. And if a "twenty year deal" is the goal, then DVD showed the perils of making assumptions based on ramping costs.

Bonnie said...

Thank you, Tom. John Wells sold us down the river for his movie mogul pals. The $1200 is less per year than I made babysitting when I was twelve. With friends like John Wells, who needs enemies like Nick Counter?

Michael said...


Why do you think streaming ads "wouldn't be able to be bypassed like you can via TiVo?" About five days into the private beta launch of hulu.com, someone figured out how to hack it and allow viewers to watch the streams without the ads. (You can find info on where to look for this via Google- I don't want to post the URL.) These ad-less Hulu feeds are now all over bittorrent.

Not An said...

I agree with Geo - there are costs to streaming and I'm sure you have to reach a certain number of eyeballs before ad revenue covers those costs; that being said, I agree with jake hollywood that a nominal viewing fee will offset a lot of those costs. Still, I think viewing fees, even a buck, may cause budgets to go up. From my experience with people who have been receiving free stuff on the net for quite a while, when they start having to pay they are going to want more than a YouTube vid - no matter how funny or thought provoking.

Good discussion starting post, Tom.

JimBob said...

Blogged to death by whom? Fuggem. When you're right, you're right. And you are.

deuddersun said...

Just a word about Tom Fontana from a btl guy. I had the privilege of working on many of Tom's shows, including OZ. Hell, I even helped build his house.

There is no other individual that I have ever worked for in my 25 years in the business who cares more for or treats his employees better than Tom.

We always got the best deals and the fattest contracts. Tom seemed to know everyone's name on any of his jobs and would often join his btl crew for a drink after work. His wrap parties are legendary.

This is a guy who has won the loyalty of his crews by treating them like family and treasured assets. I do not know one person who has ever worked on a Tom Fontana job who wouldn't go the "extra mile" to produce the finest entertainment product possible for Tom, this writer included. We all love the guy.

It is a lesson the AMPTP could well learn from.


Captain Obvious said...

"It is a lesson the AMPTP could well learn from."

Indeed. It's a lesson the corporate world at-large could learn from.

When you treat your employees / contractors / what-have-you FAIRLY and with some RESPECT, it pays dividends.

I understand that the aforementioned dividends can rarely be represented on a balance sheet, and this issue often makes it difficult for the corporate types to comprehend; but everything need not always be represented by convenient itemized expenditures.

Just know that, quite often, those expenditures that ARE itemized tend to have received added value as a result. Each dollar spent has accomplished more. Each dollar you saved you earned.

Karma. Learn it. Live it.

Marie Conroy said...

I worked for the great Tom Fontana during 1997-1998 on Oz, and then on a pilot called Family Brood. I could not believe how much money was being spent by studios to produce pilots! I thought there has to be a better way for everyone to make money...writers, advertisers, and studios. I wrote this white paper in 1998 as a solution and Tom showed it to some studio executives. It was not possible then, but it is now.
Marie Conroy

Marie Conroy said...

I worked for the great Tom Fontana during 1997-1998 on Oz and on a pilot called Family Brood. I could not believe how much the studios spent on producing the pilot! I came up with a plan for everyone to cash in; writers, advertisers and the studios. I wrote this white paper in 1998 and Tom showed it to some studio executives. It was ahead of its time then, but it is possible now.

Marie Conroy

deuddersun said...

I also worked on Family Brood as well as Tom's House, "The Library". We probably know each other, Marie. I'm heading over to check out your blog now.

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