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Time to think Creatively About the Future of Screenwriting

"Writer Niven Busch Lying on Sofa with Newspaper over His Face as He Takes Nap from Screenwriting," by Paul Dorsey.Hollywood is awash in blockbusters, huge-budget movies that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars from box offices around the globe. Film production in New York is at record levels, and studios will be rolling out dozens of big sequels, sci-fi adventures, comedies and star vehicles this year. But screenwriters are finding it more difficult than ever to make a living in this business. How could this be?

The major studios are owned by multinational conglomerates that seem stuck in an Old Economy way of thinking: minimize risk and maximize promotion; play it safe with product development and hope the market keeps absorbing what you’re selling. This approach didn’t work so well in the automobile industry, which learned the hard way that innovation and product quality are keys to long-term success. But the movie business keeps consolidating to the perceive security of conformism.

Don’t get me wrong. Audiences tend to be pretty smart, and many recent hits have been intelligent, well-constructed explorations of important cultural and political themes. Or at least they’ve been powerfully entertaining. But it is almost inevitable that the focus on mega-movies squeezes out films that are more intimate, independent, intriguing and innovative.

Many members of the Writers Guild of America, East, do very well in this context. Their genius for crafting stories that move and cohere, for developing characters with depth and appeal, is the foundation upon which big studio productions are built – and producers know it. Unfortunately, other Guild members find it increasingly difficult to work in the current environment. Studios are not spending nearly as much in development, so writers who do not present a sure, bankable thing have fewer opportunities to expand their ideas into complete projects. Financing for independent films has nearly disappeared, and the major studios’ emphasis on reliable box-office returns means that fewer and fewer small, more thoughtful films get from screenplay into production. Thus, opportunities for screenwriters are shrinking.

There was a time when Hollywood put writers on staff, paying them to develop ideas and to craft screenplays in order to feed a growing production machine. Now, virtually every film-writing job is freelance – that is, the screenwriter must pitch an idea to a studio or a producer; or must convince the producer that he or she would bring the just the right vision or chops to a project the studio has already decided to pursue; or must sell himself or herself as the perfect choice to rewrite or tighten up an already-drafted screenplay. And, of course, the screenwriter does not want to seem too demanding or uncooperative because that might make it harder to get hired on future projects. In other words, at each phase of the movie-making process, screenwriters increasingly devote themselves to self-marketing. This creates pressure on writers to offer more work for less pay—or even for no pay at all.

Perhaps classical economic theory would suggest this is a fine thing. And at some level of abstraction it is true that, when the supply of a particular service exceeds the demand, the price will drop. But that is more of an ideological construct than a description of the real world. If we want people to write compelling films that educate and entertain us, they need to be able to earn a decent living doing so; a race to the bottom, economically, would undermine the quality of what we watch. In any event, our research indicates that most of our members who are employed are paid significantly above the minimum rates negotiated by the union, and working members report that their “quotes” have been steady or have increased in recent years. It seems that getting a gig is more difficult than ever, and once you get the gig you have to work harder, but the pay has remained good. So much for classical economics.

People become screenwriters because it is their passion to create compelling films; to do that, they have to get hired (this includes people who bring complete ideas or scripts to the studio). And once they get hired, they want their vision to be realized on-screen – in other words, they want the movie to be made. This makes it very difficult to resist the pressure to write more for less compensation.  In my view, as the WGAE grapples with the new realities of the film industry, we need to think about how to address this underlying dynamic. How do we protect members from the pressure to work for free in order to get hired to work for pay, and in order to get their movies made?

It is against Writers Guild rules to write without getting paid – no free writing to get hired, no free rewriting. But I am not sure a successful strategy can be based solely on requiring individual members to risk that they will not get hired, or will not have their work produced. In 2012, we hope to generate a robust conversation among screenwriters to develop better strategies. Our project is to identify other methods of ensuring that people who have devoted themselves to the craft of film-writing can be rewarded for their work and can earn a decent living. Perhaps there is a way to insist that the studios increase development funding, or make resources available for smaller films, or provide steadier employment for more writers. We shall see what some creative thinking can produce.

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