Manifesto: United Artists

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

—Samuel Johnson

1.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the emerging technology of “motion pictures” spawned an industry in which a variety of artists—actors and directors, screenwriters and cinematographers, set designers and composers—enjoyed financial remuneration for their creative work. At the high end, the rewards were enormous. Box office receipts for films featuring the three most popular movie stars—“America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford, the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin—were so disproportionately huge that the existing studios could not afford to pay them what they were worth. To get fair market value, in 1919 the trio teamed with the seminal director D.W. Griffith to form their own studio, which they called United Artists.

The four “united artists” were unquestionably talented, but they were also historically lucky. Exploiting a distribution system (local cinema houses) that ensured a steady flow of revenue, they were able to cash in on a talent for an art form (screen acting) that did not exist a quarter century earlier. And cash in they did. Pollyanna, Pickford’s first United Artists release, grossed $1.1 million in 1920, back when a gallon of gas cost 30 cents.

The UA founders banked the most coin, obviously, but as long as moviegoers continued to fork over the price of a ticket (all of seven cents in 1920), there was plenty to go around. Not everyone became rich because of the movies, but Hollywood granted many thousands of artists the ability to earn a living wage.

In many ways, the Internet of today is like the Hollywood of a hundred years ago. Both are economic juggernauts, hugely profitable industries that didn’t properly exist 25 years earlier. Both generate beaucoup bucks for their respective Chaplins and Pickfords and Fairbankses. Both depend on a constant supply of fresh creative content—content supplied in no small way by writers.

But there are two big differences. First, unlike the early (and the current) cinema, the web is all-inclusive. A select few can star in Modern Times or get published by Scribner’s; anyone with an Internet connection can write a blog, or post a video to Vine, or sell an e-book on Amazon. We all are creative producers now—or have the ability to be.

Second, unlike the motion picture industry in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the Internet of today does not provide a living wage for many, if not most, of the writers generating its creative content. To the contrary, a veritable army of bloggers (the very word connotes something less than, something blah) provides material for a battery of websites in exchange for the nebulous wage of Exposure. In other words, they—we—write for free.

 

2.

The intersection of art and commerce has always been uneasy. Seldom has the best artist been also the highest paid. We live in a world where Two and a Half Men is entering its tenth season; where Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™ sold 50 million dollars’ worth of artwork, and Nickelback moved 50 million records; where something like 200 writers of fiction earn sufficient royalties to make a decent living at it, and three of them are Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, and Nelson DeMille. In this world, Joe Flacco is king.

Not that this is anything new. Plenty of Victorian novelists whose names you’ve never heard of moved more books than, say, Herman Melville. The Monkees outsold the Beatles. And if Rudolph Valentino, whose death in 1926 was mourned by tens of thousands, were re-animated like Lazarus and set in motion in Times Square, no one would recognize him. Furthermore, writers and painters and actors and singer-songwriters do not go into their respective fields for the money; if money was what they were after, they’d be better served working as a manager at Dairy Queen.

“I don’t see the link between art and commerce,” Stephen Elliott, founder of The Rumpus, wrote in a recent daily email. In his view, the two are completely segregated: “Look, you can bartend, or you can teach classes, or you can write shit you don’t want to write for publications you don’t want to write for. You can be a secretary, or a hooker, or a lawyer. That’s all Column A. In Column B there’s making art. There’s painting, dancing, writing poetry. In Column B there are things you don’t do for money. You don’t know why you do them at all….How much you sell it for is not the point. The point is, Why did you do it.”

The trick, of course, is to find a way to make Column A and Column B overlap, even a little. We like to think they can—art and commerce are not parallel lines, surely!—although, as Elliott suggests, it is not easy.

What’s especially troubling is that earning a living as an artist, already difficult, has in the twenty-first century approached the impossible. I’m not talking about the United Artists-level talents here, but the lesser lights: midlist authors, opening-band bass players, assistant set designers, found-object sculptors. As the distribution of wealth in the arts comes to mirror the distribution of wealth in the general population—in other words, as more and more money goes to fewer and fewer artists—the creative middle class, such as it is, has evaporated. Napster destroyed the livelihood of many musicians. The Amazon “small tail” model with its attendant horrors is doing the same to novelists, as Scott Turow explained recently in The New York Times, just as the Internet has eviscerated the ranks of solvent journalists and essayists. A National Book Award finalist told me recently that she now takes freelance jobs she never would have taken in the past, for less money, and is lucky to have them. Another writer of my acquaintance, an indie darling whose work is routinely lauded in the New York Times, mentions in every note he sends me how broke he is, how drowning in debt. And those are the successes! When Nate Thayer had his Howard Beale moment a few weeks ago—after The Atlantic dared to suggest that he trade an abridged version of a piece he’d already published for the privilege of strutting his writerly stuff before an audience of 13 million readers—what he was really railing against was the death of the creative middle class. “I don’t need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent,” Thayer told Joe Coscarelli at New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer. “Exposure doesn’t feed my fucking children. Fuck that!”

The difficulty with the World Wide Web is that unlike the silent movies, there is no seven-cent ticket demanded of the audience member. To the consumer of web content, admission is, and always has been, free.

 

3.

We started The Weeklings partly as a challenge to ourselves and partly as a literary triathlon. We wanted to see if we could do it, and how long we could keep doing it. More than that, we sought to create The Weeklings as a place to write and read the essays we were missing elsewhere. We wanted the possibility to push the form and return to the original meaning of essayer—to try and explore ideas without necessarily knowing where or how they’d develop. But the site is also a response to the frenzy of the Internet and the glut of content on many sites. We wanted to post one quality piece a day. That’s it. We wanted to spearhead the slow food movement of the literary scene: write a single good essay, post it, and expect no more of our readers.

Now that a year has passed, we’re left with a single unavoidable dictum: the future should not be free.

More compelling than Thayer’s churlish post was the commentary it generated—much of it directed at a provocateur named John McIntyre, who wrote: “If you don’t like [the current payment system], tough luck. Either accept it, or be courageous and change it. It’s as simple as that. Whining about the issue in blog comments isn’t doing a thing to fix it.” (He then recommended that everyone read “Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand”—perhaps to distinguish it from Atlas Shrugged by Candace Bushnell—and presumably watched with glee as comment-board pandemonium ensued.)

But his point was astute. In effect, McIntyre was suggesting that web writers emulate the founders of United Artists.

Which in some small way is what we, the Editorial Collective at The Weeklings, have decided to do—albeit without the universal renown and massive investment capital enjoyed by Chaplin et. al.

We believe in a socialist system—that is, we believe in sharing the wealth (such as it is). From the beginning, we envisioned The Weeklings as a collectivist, socialist, if not outright communist, enterprise. Meaning: we share in our success. When we do well, we all do well.

We believe that writers should be compensated for their work in something more tangible than Exposure. It has always been a goal of ours to pay each and every writer gracious enough to lend their work to these pages. We simply have not had the resources to do so, because we are also writers who want to get paid. At the end of our first year of operation, our revenue from the site has more or less covered our expenses. Going forward, we forecast that we will turn a (small) profit. And we plan to share this profit with every contributor to the site.

Because our model dictates that we limit ourselves to a single post a day, we will determine the annual rate of pay based on the following formula:

 

[(annual revenue) – (expenses)] / 365 = 1 share

 

So a contributor who writes, say, 13 pieces for us earns 13 shares. This will be calculated next April, after our second year of operation, for the first two years, and every one of our contributors (including, of course, the four of us at The Weeklings’ helm) will be compensated for his or her work at that time.

Granted, these checks will be extremely modest. We don’t have a hundredth of the traffic The Atlantic does. But even if the payments are so tiny as to be largely symbolic, we will dole them out just the same, as a matter of principle. It’s a small price to pay for good writing.

If you write for us, we want you to know that we are committed to this economic model. The aforementioned Ayn Rand apologist John McIntyre insisted that instead of demanding payment, Nate Thayer should work to improve the commercial viability of The Atlantic, thereby increasing his future return on investment. Point taken, Mr, McIntyre (except we prefer Eugene V. Debs to the objectivist queen): the more your essays are viewed, the more revenue our site brings in, and the more your shares will be worth. So write well, promote your work as well as that of your fellow writers on your social media feeds, and we all win.

Similarly, if you read The Weeklings—and thank you for doing so—you are supporting a socialist enterprise that pays its contributors in something other than Exposure. In the coming weeks, we’ll be releasing The Weeklings: Revolution #1, an e-anthology of the best essays from our first 52 weeks, to raise funds for our writers. We want to be the site where art and commerce intersect, where Columns A and B overlap, where our writers’ children are fucking fed.

The Huffington Post, acquired by AOL last year for $315 million in cash and stock, does not pay its bloggers for content. As of today, the Weeklings does. And if that smacks of Pollyanna, so be it.

Chaplin and Pickford on the shoulders of Fairbanks.

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7 Responses to Manifesto: United Artists

  1. Jennie Willson Jennie says:

    Bravo. I’d rather be published here than HuffPo any day!

  2. Congratulations on turning a profit.

    It’s pretty seriously amazing to get to that point after a year – let alone ever! Awesome!

  3. OPR says:

    It was my understanding that there would be no math.

  4. Fuff the Hucklepuff…*trips over own tongue and just applauds*

    Basically we’re talking about two distinct models, aren’t we? Here’s a very long, very, very good piece on the future of journalism (in fact, the future of stuff you can read online) by Paul Carr: http://pandodaily.com/2013/03/06/the-future-of-journalism-its-time-to-pick-a-side/

  5. Best Ecig says:

    Very good write-up. I certainly love this website. Stick with it!|

  6. Pingback: Five Reasons Why You Should Buy “The Weeklings: Revolution #1,” Our Anthology | The Weeklings

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