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by Nikki Tranter

14 Dec 2007


From the LA Times last month:

Under the Dramatists Guild contract for playwrights (first agreed to in 1919 and largely unchanged to this day), no changes can be made to a script without the consent of the author, who must also be involved in selecting the cast and director.

The studio bosses insisted, however, that the process of creating movies was fundamentally different and more like an industrial assembly line designed to maximize profits (this predated the notion of film as art). The way they saw it, a playwright sold a product while a screenwriter sold a service.

Oooh. Where does it come from, this idea that screenwriting is, somehow, not real writing? That the screenplay itself is not a singular art form? It’s not considered unusual, is it, for a writer to pen a play simply for the purpose of writing that play. Can a writer not also pen a film script for the exact same purpose, simply for the existence of the script, the creation of a story in a particular structure and style? Or does a screenplay exist only to be filmed? This would appear to be the case when looking back at the evolution of the writer in Hollywood.

Sean Mitchell’s LA Times piece attempts a look at both sides of the story here. I don’t know if I agree with his approach, negatively slanted against the writer, and I don’t know if his arguments regarding early Hollywood writers hold too much weight (at least, I found he could have chucked in a few more verifiable stats), but it does get one thinking.

Writers made this uneasy bargain decades ago, choosing, as humans often do, money over principle. The first playwrights and authors who came west in the 1920s, answering the demand for scripts, discovered that in Hollywood they could make five to 10 times what they could earn for a play or a novel. Who cared about ownership or copyright protection?

So the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the sons? Because artists chose to allow themselves to be exploited in the 1920s, doesn’t mean that artists today should still be paying the price. What if Mr. Chandler read that? Mitchell continues:

As long as there’s enough money to go around, writers can afford to forget what they gave up in the way of artistic rights and can live well while working within the system. It’s only when some new studio math or unforeseen media expansion alters the financial equation, as is happening now, that their relative powerlessness is again exposed—to their understandable consternation.


Understandable is an understatement. Writers in Hollywood have been cheated for years, the expansion of the Internet and home video markets have simply paved the way for Hollywood to screw them in new and exciting ways. If they don’t fix the problem now, writers will continue to lose. But Mitchell doesn’t appear altogether optimistic:

DVD percentages aside, it’s hard to imagine how this awkward reality is going to change any time soon based on the historical record and hegemony of big media.

So the beast is too big, don’t bother fighting? That’s not what Hollywood has taught me over the years. One man can make a difference says John Briley’s Oscar-winning Gandhi screenplay, Steven Zaillian’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenplay, Eric Roth’s Oscar-winning Forrest Gump screenplay, and, my golly, doesn’t the list go on.

Speaking of Mr. Chandler ... from his essay, “Writers in Hollywood”:

Its conception of what makes a good picture is still as juvenile as its treatment of writing talent is insulting and degrading. Its idea of “production value” is spending a million dollars dressing up a story that any good writer would throw away. Its vision of the rewarding movie is a vehicle for some glamorpuss with two expressions and eighteen changes of costume, or for some male idol of the muddled millions with a permanent hangover, six worn-out acting tricks, the build of a lifeguard, and the mentality of a chicken-strangler. Pictures for such purposes as these, Hollywood lovingly and carefully makes. The good ones smack it in the rear when it isn’t looking.

Oh, I hope the picketing writers of today are holding their placards with similar sensibilities.

To finish up, I’m recommending William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade (Grand Central, 1989) [especially the bit where Robert Redford suggests Goldman take a look at an alternate script of All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron], John Irving’s My Movie Business (Random House, 2000), and Alice Walker’s phenomenal The Same River Twice (Simon & Schuster, 1997), in which the author looks back at the film version of The Color Purple ten years on.

 

 

by Nikki Tranter

11 Dec 2007


Welcome to Day Two of Re:Print‘s tribute to screwed over Hollywood writers. It’s another day I’ve had to listen while a co-worker complains there’s no Office to download. I know—I miss The Office, too. But I can wait ... as long as I have to.

I wasn’t planning to post this much of it, but Raymond Chandler’s letter to Charles Morton of The Atlantic Monthly, but I felt I had to. It is such a rare document, so raw, honest, and representative of the wall today’s screenwriters continue to thrash their heads against. This is an except, albeit a long one, that outlines Chandler’s reasons why he could not complete a piece for the Atlantic on the very art of screenwriting. “I have no honesty about it,” he wrote. Remember, too, this letter was composed in 1944:

1. There is no mature art of the screenplay, and by mature I don’t mean intellectual or postgraduate or intelligentsia-little magazine writing. I mean an art which knows what it is doing and has the techniques necessary to do it.

2. An adult, that is dirty or plain-spoken art of the screen, could exist at any moment the Hays Office (Title for an Essay on same: Dirtymindedness As a Career) and the local censorship boards would let it, but it would be no more mature than Going My Way is.

3. There is no available body of screenplay literature, because it belongs to the studios, not to the writers, and they won’t show it. For instance, I tried to borrow a script of The Maltese Falcon from Warners; they would not lend it to me. All the writer can do is look at pictures. If he is working in a studio, he can get the scripts of that studio, but his time is not his own. He can make no leisurely study and reconstruction of the problems.

4. There is no teaching in the art of the screenplay because there is nothing to teach; if you do not know how pictures are made, you cannot possibly know how to write them. No outsider knows that, and no writer would be bothered, unless he was an out-of-work or manqué writer.

5. The screenplay as it exists is the result of a bitter and prolonged struggle between the writer (or writers) and the people whose aim is to exploit his talent without giving it the freedom to be a talent.

6. It is only a little over three years since the major (and only this very year the minor) studios were forced after prolonged and bitter struggle to agree to treat the writer with a reasonable standard of business ethics. In this struggle the writers were not really fighting the motion picture industry at all; they were fighting those powerful elements in it that had hitherto glommed off all the glory and prestige and who could only continue to do so by selling themselves to the world as the makers of pictures. This struggle is still going on, and the writers are winning it, and they are winning it in the wrong way: by becoming producers and directors, that is, by becoming showmen instead of creative artists. This will do nothing for the art of the screenplay and will actually harm those writers who are temperamentally unfitted for showmanship (and this will include always the best of them.) 

7. The writer is still very far from winning the right to create a screenplay without interference from his studio. Why? Because he does not know how, and it is to the interest of the producers and directors to prevent him from learning how. If even a quarter of the highly-paid screenwriters of Hollywood (leaving out all the people who work on program pictures) could produce a completely integrated and thoroughly photographable screenplay, with only the amount of interference and discussion necessary to protect the studio’s investment in actors and freedom from libel and censorship troubles, then the producer would become a business co-ordinator and the director would become the interpreter of a completed work, instead of, as at present, the maker of the picture. They will fight to the death against it.

 

 

by Nikki Tranter

10 Dec 2007


As the Writer’s Strike heads into its second month, I thought it might be fun to view perspectives on Hollywood from leading authors. Over the next few days, in the Re:Print Tribute to the Writers Here and Gone, we’ll peek behind the curtain a bit to discover the truth about how Hollywood treats its most creative (and necessary) force.

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison

There is much to share on this topic, old and new. The more things change, right? It appears authors and screenwriters of the 1940s were no better off than writers today. If the fight’s gone on this long, will it ever really end? I’ve found some fascinating documents on this subject and look forward to sharing them this week. Not only will we look at struggles for compensation, but a wide range of other issues, as well, such as gender roles, domineering directors, and problems adapting books to the screen.

Let’s kick off with Harlan Ellison’s wonderful “I sell my soul at the highest rates” rant in Dreams with Sharp Teeth, available here. Then get on YouTube and watch Harlan on Dark Dreamers talking about his writing life.

Another cool view on Hollywood vs. the Writer comes from novelist Jodi Picoult, on her website. Head to the Podcasts section, and you’ll find an eight-minute recording called “You Oughta Be in Pictures”, wherein in Picoult describes her various Hollywood experiences. She briefly analyzes, too, just how vital to success or failure on the big screen depends on gender. This is especially interesting—why, she asks, do Nicholas Sparks and Robert James Waller get to see their books made into blockbusters, but women writers with similarly themes books are relegated to Lifetime? Picoult isn’t bitter, but she is blunt, and she makes some strong points.

Tomorrow, Raymond Chandler gets in on the act.

by Lara Killian

5 Dec 2007


Compact in size, yet jam-packed with clear, colorful photos, this mini coffee table book is just the thing for you or your favorite eco-conscious consumer pals when you’re looking to save the Earth in style. Or at least raise awareness of the plight of the planet. Dave Evans, an award-winning Australian photographer, highlights practical, whimsical, and artistic objects, each made from recycled or eco-friendly materials put to innovative use. Ever seen a menorah crafted from galvanized steel plumbing pipes? A CD holder crafted from vintage vinyl LPs? We’re intrigued.

Cool Green StuffAuthor: Dave EvansCrownOctober 2007, 256 pages, $14.95

Cool Green Stuff
Author: Dave Evans
Crown
October 2007, 256 pages, $14.95

The collection is divided into sections like ‘fashion’, ‘house’, and ‘outside’, and the sheer variety of things created from materials that could have become trash or actually were reclaimed from the local dump is amazing. From ‘elephant poo poo paper’ (prettier than it sounds) to a ‘sun trap handbag’ crafted with a solar panel in the base that gently glows when opened, allowing you to find your keys at the very bottom, these objects are both usable and sustainable.

This book has an impressive range of objects that are often incredibly practical or else designed expressly to draw attention to the possibilities of product design in an enviro-friendly market. From furniture to housewares, wearable fashion to modes of transportation, the sheer scope of this project doesn’t fail to impress. Although the casual flipper-of-pages may notice a couple of sections where artists or producers are repeated in close proximity (at first I thought, why not give some press to additional manufacturers?), it makes sense that designers who are at the forefront of this movement are not focusing their efforts on a single product. No one paid to be a part of the collection; Evans has carefully selected those items which demonstrate commitment to the green consumer movement, as well as undeniable style.

Don’t miss the snazzy bottle openers made from recycled bike chains or the oddly mesmerizing ‘giggles bracelet’ created from the slightly creepy faces of discarded Barbie dolls. Possibly more disturbing is the 50 ml bottle of ‘Crude parfum’, which is not truly a perfume but a decorative flask in the style of today’s myriad celebrity fragrances, and filled literally with crude oil, drawing attention to the power of one of the most influential raw materials of our time.

Bonus: the web address for each artist or manufacturer is given on the same page with its description and photo, so the reader can follow up on those coasters made from recycled motherboard components—the only time when coffee is allowed near computer parts.

Rating: 8

by Lara Killian

3 Dec 2007


Amazon's Jeff Bezos with the Kindle.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with the Kindle.

Download current bestsellers as well as the latest release of your favorite not-so-mainstream author. Plus everything ever published, ever. Coming soon.

Last week’s cover of Newsweek magazine (11.26.07 issue) displays a nearly life size photo of the device Amazon.com is betting will finally offer a serviceable alternative to that bastion of civilization, the book. The ‘Kindle’, as it’s called, is a far more exciting product than electronic readers I’ve seen so far, and halfway through Steven Levy’s feature article I found myself enthusiastically describing the benefits to anyone who would listen.

Not only can the Kindle hold a library-worth of books (200 or so) at any given time in the palm of your hand, but it has a screen you can actually read them on without inducing migraines, and additional books are accessible at any time without hooking up to a computer. Using cell phone type broadband technology, the Kindle exists independently of your computer, which makes it even cooler than an iPod for bookish types. There are no connectivity fees.

Forget packing a carry on full of books for your beach vacation, you can decide what you feel like reading when you get there.

Your grandmother wants to know what you’re reading about? Instantly change the font size of the text. Plus get the daily paper and top bloglines instantly without carting along your wi-fi ready laptop.

Imagine having mobile access to your favorite blogs, newspapers (hot off the press), magazines (latest issues before they hit newsstands) and even being able to read freshly released chapters of that new crime novel as the author finishes writing them. Errata can be corrected instantly—because the Kindle remains accessible to publishers even after your download is finished. Rather than a static printed page, the book becomes a link that connects the reader with the entire publishing community.

All using a device that has been designed to look and feel like a book, with a six inch screen and about 10 ounces of heft in your hand. Can readers move both forward and backward at the same time, reading serialized fiction in the manner of Dickens on a device that can also access his entire oeuvre at any given moment?

The larger goal, as Amazon adds to its offerings (currently approaching the 100,000 mark, including books, blogs, magazines and newspapers) is to make instantly available everything ever published. Say what? Get in line if you want to talk about copyright infringement, but the potential is exciting. Texts are totally searchable, which has great implications for scholarship. Nothing ever goes out of print. First chapters are free, so you can try before you buy.

No wonder it costs the same as an iPhone currently does.

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