Indiewire | Nancy Nigrosh
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Memo to Screenwriters #3: Being Solely Identified by Your Scripts Leads to Permanent Identity Crisis

Like so many others, Elmore Leonard, god bless him, praised writers for their “perseverance to just sit there alone and grind it out.” Of course writers might think he was only referring to writing, especially when coupled with his memetic 10th rule: “if it looks like writing, re-write it.” Taking this credo too literally is certain to drive writers even further into the ivory tower of the introvert. Justified, indeed.

 

Elmore Leonard’s fans don’t have to have read his work extensively or at all, to uh, “know” him. He presents himself as a look-us-in-the-eye type, not some remote artist alone in a tower being celebrated from afar. In other words, Leonard exists to us as a man, not solely as a writer. His appeal extends beyond what’s on the page — the other half of the career equation. Even an opposite icon like J.D. Salinger’s controlled seclusion and rejection of immortal author conventions are just as famous as the characters he created. We know what these writers look like. We can even imagine what their opinions on various topics might be. Even though they are no longer alive and writing, they still speak through the media in identities separate and apart from their work.

 

I was recently asked about the difference between a screenwriter’s identity and a screenwriter’s voice. Simply put, in a screenplay it’s the “voice” collected into pages that’s put up for sale. If the writer’s persona has been left behind embedded in the pages, versus used portably as a sustainable tool the writer can re-use, then the writer has to start from scratch with every screenplay to gain back any kind of self referral as an artist. Imagine if the DIY self-published authors of today followed the technique traditionally used by screenwriters to simply type their name under the title as reference to authorship with no personal outreach to their readers.

 

Instead it’s typical for DIYs to directly engage with their readers, communicating whistle-stop style to gain converts. Tweets become campaign waves; blog tours, virtual handshaking — which serve before or after any work is read to exponentially expand the writer’s off-page identity. DIY scribes understand that any discriminating buyer for their work will, without question, consult a website algorithm then mentally measure the writer’s metadata before making a purchase. In a contemporary Hollywood universe, any kind of screenplay buyer does the same.

 

Consider the more familiar difference in how a film director develops identity in a traditional film business scenario. There’s discoverable emphasis on the director’s background and training with critical analysis of themes associated with that director’s work. There’s an easy dialogue flow about where and how that director grew up; which filmmakers influenced them; who their mentors were. There‘s no expectation that a page they wrote or even piece of film they directed could solely speak for them by proxy. Directors aren’t conflicted about their human persona being a key component to their professional role. When they aren’t directing they’re visibly participating in far ranging community outreach to exercise their essential uniqueness and creative values.

 

If screenwriters demand exclusive evaluative focus on the pages they “just sit there and grind out” without including interactive public behavior to identify themselves as unique storytelling masters the way Elmore Leonard and some other writers do, the screenwriter’s identity becomes dependent on how that material fares in a finite Hollywood marketplace. In this traditional film business scenario the emphasis on material necessarily becomes about cost: the cost for the rights, cost of re-writing and cost of producing it. The page is what has value, not the man or woman who wrote it, who are bound to become less important. The ensuing professional relationship composition is calculated to take power away from the screenwriter.

 

Some folks might be waiting for the WGA to conduct a blind study to see if kick-ass public identity development works. It might be simpler and faster to take a look at Diablo Cody’s career or Tony Kushner’s.

 

Ms. Cody created a public persona different from the one she grew up with that she believed was more authentic. Working at an office, she started stripping while also blogging about it. Note that she didn’t blog in any way about a screenwriting career. She showed up online as herself and attracted the attention of an alert film producer, who encouraged her as a writer. Activist Tony Kushner also shows up consistently as himself. His opinion is often sought about topics of concern, not just Hollywood-centric ones. We know about these artists’ human personas, which not only influences their writing, but attracts the notice of their worlds at large, thus creating anticipation of their work.

Memo to Screenwriters #2: Like E.L. James, You Can Change the Game

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan emphasized the value of message and the medium the message uses over its creator. This idea flies in the face of the modern era’s printed book as the ultimate expression of the writer, who toiled in glorified isolation as the big publishing house distributed it magically across the universe. McLuhan went on to predict a wireless world, where all messages are accessed instantly to and from a collective brain–what we now call mobile media.

 

Ever since authors shed the fantasy of a big publishing house model, many midlist and novice writers have opted to write speculative books delivered to reading tablets–print on demand–once they realized that they had the distinct advantage of having a product they solely owned that could be bought directly online. Now writers manage not only all creative decisions but also their own metadata, including ISBN number and price.

 

The most successful among them, “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E.L. James, strategized with aggressive genre mastery. She identified and directly engaged with present and future readers in social media hangouts. She insured that the upload to Amazon, iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Sony Reader could truly pay off. Big publishing houses had long overlooked such popular fiction genres as romance and science fiction. Now big houses along with the public (and movie studios), scout for bestselling indie authors.

 

Which prompts the question: what can screenwriters learn from this?

 

Flashback: Hollywood, circa 2001. Gutenberg almost left the building. Talent agencies began to scan screenplays into computers, making obsolete their script library (that also served production and casting). This was first done in the name of efficiency to save storage space. Printed copies went out as usual, delivered by hand. Then, after reliable email attachments came into general use, clients’ revised drafts could be distributed with an easy click.

 

But issues of control arose when it came to spec scripts. Reverting to type, the market marched backwards by sending sealed hard copies to buyers’ homes after hours and/or watermarking screenplays (so that pirated copies could be traced to a leaker) to accommodate time-sensitive, high stakes spec submissions. No thanks to the collective brain, many scripts were negatively profiled on the net via the tracking boards, and dismissed almost immediately. Though the market was fading, specs still held strong as an essential career strategy.

 

Truth is, the shark, like Oprah’s couch, had been thoroughly jumped. Around 2008, a certain major studio dropped the compulsory rain or shine weekend read. I recall a stunned colleague announcing at a staff meeting, “They’ve decided from now on to be more selective.” It never occurred to anyone to heed McLuhan’s prediction of electronic (vs. physical) delivery as its own high-impact message by posting a script on a private site with a password. Or trying the unheard of idea of posting a property MLS style with specs and stats that a prospective buyer’s gut could go with or without. First launched in email in 2004 as a free annual development survey, Franklin Leonard’s The Black List now offers a gated community tour for producers, directors and executives eager to identify the status of popular scripts idling in studio development or possibly overlooked (or looked over) gems.

 

A few weeks ago, the WGAW sanctioned use of the site solely devoted to promoting professional screenwriters’ work, searchable not only by name and title but by detailed genre, logline, budget and attachments as well as rated by reviewers. In the shadow of crashing tentpoles, opportunity has never knocked louder. Yet, how often have screenwriters solely described their work as a “calling card” that speaks for itself? By insisting on a virtual blind taste test, the writer’s identity elicits little more detail than a name followed by the question of who their agent is. Without a game a name is just a name.

 

Contrast that with what happens when a book is enthusiastically recommended to anyone. The question of “who wrote it?” paints a creative persona with details about gender, race, nationality, childhood, life story, life span, regional experience, class, politics. Expressed appreciation might extend to the book’s authentic atmosphere crafted by a mastery of language, character, genre cred, ear for dialogue, and clarity of message that all together earn that writer the reputation for ability to dial directly into universal truths.
Any kind of writer — dead and buried — or alive and writing, can “like” McLuhan, “friend” Gutenberg and become easy to discover via personal websites, genre driven blogs, mashup videos and show up on you-name-it social media to attract not only readers but loyal admirers. Why not screenwriters?

Call Nancy Nigrosh a recovering agent. After 25 years as a talent agent repping writers and directors for film and television, she left her last gig at Innovative Artists. Freed from the shackles of agenting, she wrote what she calls her Parting Shot#1. If she’s right, Hollywood’s days of labor unrest are not over.

Screenwriting in Hollywood: A Modest Proposal

The Lone Screenwriter:

It’s time to take one last look back at the two and a half decades I spent as an agent. Of all the questions I’ve had over the years, there’s one that most burned and bothered me: Why is it so ingrained in Hollywood that one person alone cannot write a producible screenplay?

 

The Writer’s Guild Of America’s 2007-8 strike was supposed to be about a bigger piece of the pie for the future distribution of a writer’s produced work‚ the pie in the digital sky. But the real truth is that the actual day-to-day script development process based on writer elimination has created the real strife. Historically this practice has led to the cyclical bloodletting every time the guild’s contract with the buyer /employer gang known as the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, expires. If something doesn’t fundamentally change, there will be more strikes in the future, as each contract expires, creating a negative cycle of meltdown Hollywood and its doting mama, California, can ill afford.

 

Novelists, playwrights and poets are not rewritten by other writers. Even journalists do the deed pretty much alone. But screenwriters not only routinely and eagerly replace each other, they are tactical in their competitive quest for credit, credit that is not only emotionally gratifying but financially existent. Without credit, future opportunity, immediate and contingent compensation, dissolve. All that hard work to get beyond base camp, undone. Back to square none. Meaning – what do you tell your family, friends, former classmates, neighbors, and people you’ve yet to meet – that you did work on something glamorous for possibly years even, but in the end, your name didn’t scroll by?

 

And the other question that will not leave your mind is the calculation of cash you didn’t get and residuals you will never see. This belief and its subsequent practice of multiple screen authorship is a unifying principle that not only does not serve its community of believers, but actually endangers its members from achieving prosperity in a scarce economy. The idea of writer for re-hire came from a system abandoned long ago at a time when writers were paid by the piece by the week in a factory for teaming mass consumption. Movies were the only game in town, and the workhorses were kept fresh. Getting firedoften meant relief, even deliverance. But with the new dawn, comes reality. Fired means fired.

 

Why do screenwriters routinely experience this extreme emotional low when every book store in America has shelves galore devoted to the craft of screenwriting as though it were solely a swashbuckling high? Being a screenwriter is believed to be akin to the fighter pilot in his cockpit, a cold war hero saving the free world. Nothing less than orgasmic‚ right? Like a rock guitar god, right? The real facts of screenwriting life are hidden from its adoring public. Everybody wants the job even though those in the know know it’s going to hurt and routinely end with the writer’s purse getting snatched and / or in snatching a brother or sister writer’s purse.

 

Who hasn’t gnashed teeth over the Notice of Participating Writers attached to a shooting script with the sickening list of all of those fellow WGA members you might even have marched with on the picket line, who worked on your finally produced screenplay? Or let’s say youre the middle writer hoping to finally shine, or the baby of the family –the last to arrive — who saves the day. The financing entity — a studio or network or all too often now, a financing other– then fills in the blank of credit recommendation based on their perception of the final result. The list routinely reaches back years and usually includes at least three to six or seven names. The most I ever saw was fifteen for one production – back in the ’80’s when development money flowed like a mighty river.

 

Once that form has been filled out and mailed to all the writers who participated in the project, then the WGA arbitration committee, served by the guild’s membership on a rotating jury duty basis, plays God. Rarely does the writer, with no monogrammed set chair when the music stops, agree that it was fair to be left out of the bounty. Here is where the disenfranchisement is really born, the disenfranchisement that the Guild so fervently believes is created solely by the producers. The Guild believes the only remedy is for those bad boy and girl producers to shave some gravy into the union’s pot. That will make it alright, right?

 

The screenwriters who do not receive credit lose their sense of professional self worth. They lose credibility and they lose money. They are not invited to the screening or any other film festivity. It is as though they never existed. Their contribution is expunged. The credited writers – and it typically is more than one writer who is awarded credit by the Guild – do not share the credit with grace. It is not like sharing a Nobel prize, a ride or a campfire. Unless you hire your own hardworking publicist you’ll be sitting at the kiddie table and arguing politely with security at the star’s tent at the premier because here’s the other thing: nobody cares. Even the spotlight and the red carpet show the credited writer(s) no love. Even if the credit is stand-alone, there are unexpressed whispers in the air. The writer is a slight embarrassment because how do you congratulate someone whose contribution is diluted and unclear? Who really wrote it? Aren’t they just someone who survived the process of elimination? What about the forgotten writer whom the Guild excluded whose scenes and character work possibly still persists? The most successful writers, the ones with the most credit, the ones who work the most, know this plight from every emotional angle, including the rarest terrain that is the most frozen of all Siberian tundra: award season. Another uncomfortable fact of life being there is no financial bounce for financier X for a screenwriting award anyway.

 

Even with credit, financially the reward reduces when all contingent and residual compensation becomes equally divided among the other credited writers. The director, on the other hand, gets a check that is a 100% payment while WGA members share in mere fractions of the same type of royalty.

 

Until technology forces Hollywood’s hand and high definition videos are delivered seamlessly online, the entertainment business will continue to be guided by 20th century principles based on a local, physical universe versus a virtual, global one. Who could argue that there isn’t a huge difference between these two worlds? How much prosperity has already been lost by clinging to past ideas about how to preserve mature revenue streams? Yeah, those FBI and fines warnings on videos and DVDs really did the trick.

 

Instead of fighting change as Old Guard Hollywood has historically done –first opposing the advent of sound, then color– and allow the possibility of deus ex machina in the working world or via a new Gesalt, eliminating the option for screenwriters to be voted off the island — there could then be a clean slate start for the town’s evolving digital purveyance. Maybe then the constant conflict between the writer for hire and the contractors for their invaluable services might be avoided or, lessened enough to keep the peace. And, dare I say it, a practice of singular authorship might create strong product that passes the stress test for quality storytelling. Consumers have a nose for originality and crave its bouquet. They can smell CPR and Frankenstein mishmash a mile away.

 

So WGA- heal thyself, or else become the serial author of Damoclean labor disputes that affect the livelihoods of thousands internal to the entertainment industry and the untold other thousands, the innocent bystanders who serve us all, you know, the rest of the city?

 

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

 

Call Nancy Nigrosh a recovering agent. After 25 years as a talent agent repping writers and directors for film and television, she left her last gig at Innovative Artists. Freed from the shackles of agenting, she wrote what she calls her Parting Shot#1. If she’s right, Hollywood’s days of labor unrest are not over.