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.