Books

Hollywood vs. The Writers: Day Three

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.

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