Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"We got along."

There's really not much that goes on in the world of comics that the readers really need to be aware of -- we got along for decades without this level of faux-transparency. But this is the world we live in now, like it or not.
Tom Brevoort*
It is an unavoidable conclusion that capitalism exerts an infantilizing influence on our lives.

If we accept these conditions we accept life in a state of perpetual childish anxiety.

If we accept this childish anxiety we find ourself regarding much of our lifestyle choices in the same manner as a child awaiting Christmas morning; the morning will surely bring the revelation that all that has been done under the cover of darkness has been done for our benefit.

If we refuse to accept the "Santa Claus" hypothesis of modernity we our simply excluded.

It is not hard to imagine that contracts drawn up between individuals and corporate interests are inherently unfair; it is far harder to imagine that any such contract ever could be fair.

All contracts are only as good as the litigators you can afford to hire to enforce every clause.

This is why contractual disputes between corporations and all but the richest individuals are usually over before they even begin: the plaintiff must spend years of unceasing exertion in the vain attempt to roll a boulder up a hill, whereas the defendant need merely remain seated on the top of said boulder for as long as he (it) may wish.

(The same principal applies to the government, but under certain circumstances it's actually easier to sue the government than a major corporation.)

If we accept the "Santa Claus" hypothesis we cannot then hold the offender to account for his moral failings: we have already given up the right to express moral outrage through our previous, tacit acceptance and understanding that in all cases the "ends" of consumer gratification outweigh the "means" by which this gratification is achieved.

No one likes seeing how the sausage is made, even the people who make the sausage.

It is to the great advantage of capital that it has assembled a system wherein no single worker can actually perceive at any given moment the nature of the sausage they are assembling.

This moral Fordism allows great injustices to be parceled out in industrial quantities; if no one actually sees the dimensions of the finished product (sausage) before it rolls off the assembly line, then no one can stop it before it is completed; and once it is completed, well, whoever would want to waste such a perfectly nice sausage?

The comics industry is very small, but still not small enough that the balance of power isn't overwhelmingly lopsided.

Other fields in entertainment at least have unions to protect small fish from being entirely trampled; union organization never worked out so well in comics.

Because there's nothing even remotely resembling collective bargaining at any level of the industry, every contract negotiation effectively occurs in a "right-to-work" context.

Contracts are private, and non-disclosure clauses exist to keep any kind of collusion on the part of freelancers from occurring.

Which is not to say that it doesn't happen, as it surely does.

But how many Marvel contracts have you seen? How many DC contracts?

It isn't in anyone's interest to make private contracts public.

The industry is too small to be held accountable for anything, but its small enough that individual actors can be held accountable for everything.

No one has the money necessary to investigate what actually goes into contracts.

There's this thing called "Hollywood Accounting."

Essentially, this is what happens when movie studios (and TV studios and record companies) cook the books in such a way as to avoid paying royalties on even the most successful properties.

There are a number of ways of doing this: one of the most common ways of cheating talent out of royalties is to sign a contract guaranteeing net profits as opposed to gross. The studio will ensure that the movie never, ever, ever sees a net profit, even if they have to go so far as to claim that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix lost $167 million dollars.

If you have any power whatsoever, you get gross points in your contract, because otherwise you'll never see a dime.

Quote from 26 February 2005:
The show, all in, cost about $110 million to make. Each year of its original run, we know it showed a profit because they TOLD us so. And in one case, they actually showed us the figures. It's now been on the air worldwide for ten years. There's been merchandise, syndication, cable, books, you name it. The DVDs grossed roughly half a BILLION dollars (and that was just after they put out S5, without all of the S5 sales in).

So what does my last profit statement say? We're $80 million in the red.

Basically, by the terms of my contract, if a set on a WB movie burns down in Botswana, they can charge it against B5's profits.

But then again, I knew that was the situation going in...I saw the writing on the wall (and the contract) from the git-go. I didn't do this to build an empire, I wanted to tell this story...and that's worth more than anything else.

Doesn't mean I can't tweak 'em about it, though.

jms (J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5)*
It is very rare that anyone actually sues an entertainment company over breach of contract or shady accounting. Even more rare that anyone win such a suit:
His lawsuit, filed Thursday, seeks 37.5% of net profits from syndication. Garner accuses U of deceiving him and suppressing info about syndication.

Garner starred as Jim Rockford in the series that ran 1974-1980. Instead of paying him $25,000 an episode in royalties, U charged him a distribution fee, according to the lawsuit. (Emphasis mine)
The comics industry has been playing the Hollywood accounting game for a long time now.

Only there are a few differences: for one, the issue of ownership is front and central to comics in a way that it isn't for movies - which are almost always the sole property of the studio, royalties notwithstanding - but which more resembles the music industry.

Every now and again a story pops up about Marvel and reprint royalties, usually foreign royalties. These things don't happen because of individual oversight, companies such as Marvel make a lot of money out of systematically pruning every possible source of royalty payments from their contracts.

They can do this because no one (as in, no readers) cares what's in your average Marvel contract. No one knows what's in your average Marvel contract because it is in the interest of everyone working for Marvel on a freelance (read: precarious, paycheck-to-paycheck) position not to share this information.

Everyone likes Christmas morning, no one doesn't want to believe in Santa Claus. We all want very desperately to believe that the men and women in charge of making our favorite superhero comic books are good people, generous and kind-hearted - if you turn your head just right in the Marvel offices you can still see Smilin' Stan in the corner chatting with the King over the plot to the latest issue of Fantastic Four, right?

Most people working for Marvel probably are genuinely good people. But the beauty of working for capital is that you don't have to take the weight of prevarication or disassembly on yourself. Privately, I'm sure most people would agree that certain things are "wrong" or "regrettable," but publicly it's "completely out of their hands."

When Mr. Brevoort says, "we got along for decades without this level of faux-transparency," I wonder how he defines the phrase "we got along."

When Malibu comics started the Ultraverse, creator contracts were written in such a way that creators received mandatory profit participation from the use of any of their characters. This was the reason why savvy creators such as Steve Gerber (!), James Hudnall, Steve Englehart and Barry Windsor-Smith were comfortable creating a slew of new properties for another superhero comics publisher.

Only it turned out that when Marvel bought the company, the hassle of paying creators was too much trouble. After a few years of desultory attempts to revitalize the franchise, the line as dropped. And now in an era of even smaller profit margins and ever higher demands for per-unit profitability, those "perfect" contracts help to ensure that those characters will simply never be seen again.

Corporations don't feel "shame." Corporations can't feel "shame."

Individuals working on the behalf of corporations can only under the most extraordinary of circumstances be made to acknowledge shame, because the structures of capital act to limit negative moral amortization across corporate interests over time.

In other words, everyone else is doing it, so I don't see what the problem is.
But then again, I knew that was the situation going in...I saw the writing on the wall (and the contract) from the git-go. I didn't do this to build an empire, I wanted to tell this story...and that's worth more than anything else.

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