On agents of evil and the web replacing television

by Paul William Tenny

I have a couple of comments that resulted in some interesting discussion the last couple of days that I thought I'd like to share with you. On Joe Mallozzi's blog, I took the opportunity to shoot down the myth that streaming video (from websites as opposed to cable and satellite on-demand) is going to replace television (cable, satellite, over-the-air broadcast) in the near future, or even the far off future. I gave an lengthy though not in-depth explanation on how the Internet's infrastructure wasn't designed for on-demand IPTV and can't handle it even with a monumental upgrade in capacity.

Over on Alex Epstein's blog, he and I are debating how you should treat an agent that's interested in your script, has some notes her or she would like to you apply in a rewrite, but is totally non-committal to you contractually. Although it's mostly me debating and other people telling me I'm wrong but apparently aren't capable or interested in explaining why, it's still worth a look if that sort of thing interests you.
On the future of TV
Put simply, the Internet doesn't have the physical capacity to stream American Idol to 35 million people, along with the however many people watching the hundreds of other channels available on cable, and still provide the web experience we enjoy today -- not by a factor of thousands.

Direct broadcast systems only need X amount of bandwidth to send you a single channel. While X differs based on compression settings and video codec (and whether or not a given system even uses those things, currently digital cable and satellite do, analog cable and over-the-air broadcast do not), for a given system, it's a static number that multiplies by the number of channels. If we say that a single channel on DirecTV requires about 4 mbit/second worth of bandwidth, then you could say that you'd need 400 mbit/s for 100 channels (4x100).

It's a linear increase, in other words.

The available capacity of a single coax cable is limited, but still very large. You may think that your cable Internet connection is slow, but you must understand that your cable company is only using a fraction of the total available bandwidth for Internet while the overwhelming majority is used for regular television -- precisely because regular television requires a massive amount of bandwidth. The same rules apply for satellite because what we're really talking about is utilization of radio frequency spectrum, and there's only so much of it to go around.

Because everyone on a physical cable network, and because everyone with satellite is getting the same signal physically, you only need to send a channel once and everybody gets it. As you know, if you want something off the Internet, you've got to ask for it, and it gets sent only to you. If two people are watching streaming TV, even if they are watching exactly the same program, they are using double the bandwidth that any direct broadcast system would require. That too is a linear increase.

Since video on the Internet is highly compressed and not comparable to television (on any system or website) in terms of quality, we're not talking about 4 mbit/s but closer to 1.5. If you've got ten people watching exactly the same video, that's 1.5 x 10, or just about 15 mbit/s of required bandwidth, compared to the 4 or so needed for satellite or cable (and may be as high as 7-9.)

Because those broadcasts are shared and direct, 35 million people can watch a single 4-9mbit channel and still only be using 4-9 mbit/s worth of bandwidth. If everyone who likes American Idol watched it on the Internet, that'd be over 52,500,000 mbit/s, which is something like 1,346 times more bandwidth than is available on the fastest part of AT&T's backbone today.

And that's assuming the backbone was already empty.

You can read more at the link above and you'll find right away that one users says "..fortunately for us, what you have explained is not how it works, and things will be fine." Since this is all this person ever says, I can only assume they, like the people I've been trying to explain this to, don't have the slightest clue what they are talking about. This is precisely how things work and the Internet will never, ever replace television as a distribution medium.

I am not an expert on this, but I know a heck of a lot more than most people do.

And to really push my point across, this is just standard definition television. HDTV is anywhere from four to six times as large.

On agents
Alex Epstein answers questions from rookie writers like myself on his blog, including some of my own which I appreciate, but I think in this instance he's handing out stereotypical "conventional wisdom" advice that I think kind of stinks. There was some question over what a person should do if they find an agent that likes their script but has some notes, and would like to see the script rewritten. The sticking point for me is that the agent promises nothing in return for the work they'd like to see done, which goes against everything unions stand for. The WGA has rules specifically forbidding "free rewrites" for producers so I asked why is it acceptable to do free rewrites for an agent you haven't signed yet? [Note: Yes, I said "agent you haven't signed" -- you pay their commission, that makes you their boss.]

After explaining my position, the best response anyone could come up with was sarcasm and mockery, and while I love some good mockery as much as the next person, it doesn't belong in a serious, previously respectful discussion. It's also not very helpful towards understanding points of disagreement.

I believe that if an agent expresses interest in your script, then they ought to be prepared to give you something in return if they are asking you to do something like turn their notes into a new script. I don't know why it's so unreasonable just to ask.

"Hey, if you like this, then why don't you agree to rep this script and I'll make the changes you want."

For that, I was accused of thinking all agents are evil and out to take advantage of writers. Read it for yourself, and tell me what you guys think.
in Feature, Internet, Streaming Video, Television


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    After explaining my position, the best response anyone could come up with was sarcasm and mockery

    Actually, most people, including myself, gave thoughtful responses to your comments, and Alex devoted another entire post to the discussion. Maybe you didn't read it. Your claim that people only responded with mockery and sarcasm, I'm guessing, allows you to dismiss the wall of comments, many by working screenwriters, that basically said you were not only dead wrong, but didn't seem to have a real grasp of the writer-agent relationship. Expecting to change the way things work as a newbie writer without any credits to your name is incredibly naive and, I'm guessing, going to kill any chance of a career you're hoping to have. You mentioned the number of screenwriters who work without an agent. I don't believe it's as high a number as you think, and I would surmise many of them only began working without an agent after establishing themselves in the business. You better hope that that's not true, because I don't see you getting an agent with the attitude you have. Not a respected one, anyway.
    You mentioned Straczynski on Alex's site, too. There are two problems with using him as an example. One is that he started out 25 years ago. The landscape was very different, then. The second is that you state that he `basically' never uses agents. Well, other than your statement being self contradictory, you never say when he used an agent. Did he use one starting out? Did he use them to move out of writing for animation? To move into film? When?

    And while I agree that it is probably possible to become a successful screenwriter without using an agent, why immediately handicap yourself? It's tough enough to get into the business without doing things purposely to make it more difficult. That's not very smart.

    Your original argument about not doing free re-writes for an agent, though, is flawed. First of all, I'm assuming you've already done countless free re-writes in order to improve on the original draft, am I correct? Of course you don't call them free re-writes because you're doing it for yourself and doing it in order to get the script ready to be shown around. Isn't that simply what the agent is asking you to do? Taking another go at it so he/she feels confident enough in it to send it out?

    Secondly, I'm curious who you expect to pay you for the re-write. The Agent? In your own words, he/she is working for you. Why would they pay you? Doesn't that suddenly change the relationship? The agent becomes your employer the moment they start paying you.

    One thing you focused on is that the agent has not signed you, so your are under no obligation to them. True, but what you don't seem to realize is that there is probably a reason they have not signed you. If your script was so good they could immediately take it out and sell it, my guess is that they would sign you, or at the very least, take the script out as is. There's no harm in it for them, and the potential payoff is worth it. What it says to me, that the writer was not signed, is that the script has potential, but the agent doesn't have enough confidence in the writer or script to sign him or go out and sell the script the way it is. If an agent goes out with a script they don't feel is ready, it reflects badly on them. In essence, it's the mark of a bad agent. So really, if the agent gives you notes, you refuse to do them, and takes the script out anyway, they're most likely not a very good agent to begin with. Besides, if you don't trust the notes the agent gives you in the first place, why on earth would you want to continue a relationship with them? None of this makes any sense. And it's certainly not business savvy, that's for sure.

    Business savvy is putting yourself in the best possible position to make the most amount of money. Your scenario limits your options and makes you appear petty. Business savvy is knowing when to invest in yourself and those that are trying to help you. Sometimes that investment comes in time and effort. An agent is there to help you. It's in their best interest to help you make money. That's, in fact, their sole purpose for entering into a relationship with you. A producer doesn't care about helping you. Their sole purpose is to make the film while spending the least amount of money. That means it's in their best interest to pay you the least amount of money. That means asking for free re-writes when they can get away with it. He could pay you, but he doesn't want to. A respectable producer obviously won't do that, but, unlike an agent, you don't have to have any credentials to be a producer.

    My guess is that you're being argumentative for argument's sake. I find it difficult to believe that you would be this naive, especially when you call yourself `The Media Pundit'.
    Three over the course of 2+ years. The first one neglected to tell him that he was basically retired, the second was a shifty fraud. Later, the third wasn't really into the kinds of scripts he was writing and he always got sloppy seconds when it came to attention. He was working the entire time, jobs he found for himself.

    Now apparently he has two good ones but is still finding work on his own. Lesson learned: agents help but they aren't required. Agents are people too which means they aren't magical fairy's who always have your best interests in mind.

    This is why I feel so bad for all the people who gleefully agreed with Alex just because he was the one saying it. These people aren't going to be looking out for themselves and some of them are going to regret it.

    Okay, so this does explain a few things. You have a MASSIVE distrust of agents. WHat you don't seem to understand is that Straczynski's `luck' with agents, in the beginning, was partially his own fault. He didn't do his research. In the internet age it's even easier. You research anyone you go into business with. Period. I've dealt with producers, agents and managers and did research on all of them before I responded to them. Some I didn't like what I found and didn't do anything with. The rest I never had a problem with.

    As for thinking agents are magical fairies, I have no idea where you got that. Anyone who knows anything about the business knows that an agent is simply a helper, but that you still need to work as hard to get the jobs. No one said you didn't. You're making massive assumptions about what people are thinking simply because they are disagreeing with you. And believe it or not, people aren't just agreeing with Alex because he's the one saying it. Again, you're deluding yourself, possibly as a way to ignore everyone. You're making up excuses not to listen.

    Many producers or companies won't deal with you if you don't have an agent. Whether or not it was you who did the legwork, they don't care. It will get to a certain point and then they will ask for you to get your agent to send your screenplay. And if you don't have one, they'll tell you to get one. They would much rather deal with an agent than directly with you. Again, you're handicapping yourself by not having one.

    And while an agent will look for what's in his best interests, getting you work IS in their best interests. That's the whole point of what they do. They make money when you do. It's why it's so difficult for a newbie writer to get a half decent agent. There''s no guarantee they'll make money off you. Quite frankly, without credits, you're a risk for an agent to take on as a client. Giving them demands is not going to make you look like you have business savvy. It's going to make you look like an arrogant newbie writer who doesn't know how things work. And, quite frankly, it's obvious you don't. It's apparent to me, and to all the working writers who responded to Alex's posts. You can talk about not being taken advantage of, or of changing the way things or done, or about looking like a smart business man, but in the end, no respectable agent worth his salt is going to want to go into business with you. You're too much trouble. I can tell by your comments and because I remember people complaining about you months ago on another site (I don't remember which).

    I don't consider them free because they take time to do. But there is a pretty big difference between doing one because you believe it's worth it, or because your existing agent believes it's worth it, and because an unsigned agent with no ties and no investment in you thinks it's worth it.

    Again, you don't seem to understand. The fact that the agent actually READ your script and took the time to give you notes IS an investment. They've invested their time. For an agent, their time in invaluable. By refusing to do a rewrite, you're basically saying, thanks, but my time is more valuable than yours. Not a good way to start a relationship.

    If the script is 90% there but needs a little work, then you hand them another script that is all the way there. 90% is good enough that the remaining 10% is most likely opinion. You hand that script to 10 different agents and you'll probably get ten different opinions on that last 10%. There is always going to be a 10%, with the studio, with producers, with your girlfriend or your dog.

    Beyond that 90% is the "sellable now" script which basically nobody has. It's a myth. .

    I'm not sure what `all the way there' is. Yes, it may be their opinion, but it's them who are putting their ass on the line for you. Why on earth would they take the script out if they don't feel it's ready? Again, if they think it needs improvement, and they're a good agent, then they probably know what will sell a lot more than you do. Again, this boils down to your mistrust of agents.

    Because ultimately agents don't represent scripts, they represent you. Giving notes is nice but it isn't their job. They go out and sell what you give them to sell. If your stuff isn't good enough to sell, then they need to find another writer. If they can't trust your talent to make a script sellable then you need to find another agent.

    This, again, is the entire point of having a portfolio rather than a single spec, something Alex and every screenwriter on the planet will tell you. If one is "almost there", then hand them four more that are. If none of them are there, then you probably aren't capable of writing one that "is there" and they should walk. Or you should ask yourself if their idea of what "is there" is out of whack and whether or not this agent that you're doing free work for is even a good one..

    The problem is, your idea of ready and an agent's idea of ready are probably vastly different. And believing that not having a `ready' script means you never will is incredibly naive. My sister is a best-selling author, yet after handing in her latest book, she had to make changes for her agent and then for the publisher. It's her job to write the book. It's the agent's job to get it into a shape that he/she can sell to a publisher. It's the publisher's job to make it into something they can sell to the public.

    Your assertion that it isn't the agent's job to give notes is not entirely correct. While it is the job of the agent to sell the script, it's also the job of the agent to make sure it is ready to sell. Giving notes is part of that.

    I think you're skipping a few steps here. Making the most amount of money should be the result, not the goal. If you aren't prepared to ask anything of a potential agent now, how are you going to have the savvy to "make the most amount of money" from a studio or network when they play exactly the same kinds of shell games later in your career? You don't think a producer or network/studio is going do everything possible to make you sacrifice while they benefit without having done anything?

    If you can't stand up for yourself at the entry level, I don't see you (not you specifically) doing it any further up the ladder either. .

    Well, you are the one who seems to be obsessed with getting paid for everything you do. It's not a matter of standing up for yourself. It's a matter of putting yourself in the best possible position to succeed. You can't be obsessed with standing up to everyone. You'll seem like you have a chip on your shoulder (which you do come across as having). And if you have a good agent, it will be their job to stand up to the studio or network when they play games. That's the great thing about having an agent.

    And you stand up for yourself when you actually have a leg to stand on. Before then, no one cares.

    Unsigned agents aren't trying to help you, that's the problem.

    An unsigned agent has the potential to help you as much as a signed one. They just might not be confident enough in your ability, yet, to sign you. Showing them you can take notes and turn them into a successful rewrite might be enough to get you signed. It's certainly not in their best interest to try and sell your script if there is no agreement between you. You don't actually have to pay them anything if the script is sold and there is no signed agreement. Remember that the contract protects BOTH of you. You make it seem as if unsigned agents are out to screw you. I don't understand that because it's of no interest to them to screw you. Besides, I'm not exactly sure what it is you think they can do. The most they can do is ask you to do a rewrite or two and then decide not to sign you. They get nothing out of you by asking you to do rewrites if they don't feel there is potential to sell it. Everyone seems to realize that except you.

    Ok first of all I call myself Paul, because that's my name. This website is called The Media Pundit, not me. I don't call myself that anymore than Alex calls himself "Complications Ensued". I know it's a cheap and easy fallback when people want to insult me but all it does is look bizarre.

    Actually, The Media Pundit is a title of a person. Complications Ensue is not a title. It's a phrase. You can't call yourself Complications Ensue. If you called your website The Media Pundit without realizing that people would assume you were calling yourself The Media Pundit, you're incredibly naive. If I called my blog, The Angry Man, most people would assume that I was calling myself the Angry Man. It's not much of a leap. Your website is a blog run by one person. If it was an online magazine, with several contributors, I might understand your assertion.

    And I never said anyone was having an argument. And please don't condescend to me about what a debate is. It makes you look even more arrogant. And unfortunately your argument (meaning an address or composition intended to convince or persuade) was not based on sound logic, which is why not one person agreed with you and why some used sarcasm.
    Wow! What colour is the sky in YOUR world?
    Amazing post and comments that I've saved for a thorough w/e read, but I was on hold with a lit agent this afternoon (big 5, mid-level, 15+ years) when I ran across this blog and asked him about your post's original question when he came back on the phone. I said something like "what's that about?" and he said "the guy probl'y thinks his notes ARE his contribution at this point."

    Since I didn't know the script, the writer, the agent or the notes in question (hadn't read anything but the post), I thought it was a pretty decent defense of the practice. A lot of agents don't even read the script through personally, much less craft notes intended to make it better/more sale-able/whatever. It might be a blow-off that's softer than a pass, but I thought I'd toss in that actual feedback.

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