Feature: Screenwriters in Hollywood
Thu, 04 Sep 2008 14:39:25
Imagine that a movie crew is a football team. The director’s like a quarterback; he lines up the offense, makes sure everyone knows their mark and executes the play. Much of the success rides on his leadership. The tailback is your marquee star, like a Brad Pitt. He’s the one you’ve paid money to watch move the ball around. That means the wide receiver is your female lead, some flashy eye candy to make the big plays. After all, what would Brad Pitt be without Angelina Jolie? (Answer: awesome again.) No cast is complete without capable character actors in supporting roles, and no offense is complete without a dependable fullback and tight end anchoring the line. Heath Ledger’s Joker wouldn’t shine as bright without the support of Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. But these are all the glory positions, what of the unsung heroes? Think of the offensive line as below the line craftsmen. You don’t win games without rock solid linesmen, and you don’t make lasting films without amazing cinematographers, editors, art directors, costume designers, and effects coordinators. If the producer is the team’s owner, the one who gathers the capital and reaps the lion's share of the reward, that means that the writer must be the coach, the linchpin of the entire operation. He designs and calls the plays, decides on the positions of all his players and takes the fall when his endeavor suffers the agony of defeat. In football, coaches are highly sought after and very well (many would argue overly) compensated for their skills. But that’s where this analogy between film and the greatest sport known to man falls apart, because to a great extent feature writers are the most overlooked, marginalized, and under compensated parts of the equation.
Film can exist without actors. Witness documentary and animation. Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane—the holy grail of movies—said that with a competent enough crew, the director becomes irrelevant. But the one indispensable component in the process is story. If you don’t have a writer, you don’t have a movie. So why is a big paycheck for a movie writer mid to high six figures when a moderate paycheck for an actor or director is routinely in the millions? Josh Friedman, the scribe behind War of the Worlds, The Black Dahlia and most recently, FOX Network’s Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles has made many humorous and poignant observations about the marginalization of the screenwriter on his blog, “I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing.” Many times, he still has to wade through miles of studio red tape just to get invited to premieres of his films. He writes, “You can be… Josh Friedman or… Shakespeare… but if you're a screenwriter you're a screenwriter and if you want people to give you love at your premiere you better bring 'em with you.”
Oddly enough, this phenomenon does not extend to television. On the small screen, the writers sit atop the food chain, but they didn’t always reside there. To understand the delineation, one must trace this paradigm shift to its origin, namely Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Submitted for Your Approval, the documentary about this groundbreaking series and the man behind it explains that before Serling, writers on television were as interchangeable as set dressing. But Serling was the first writer in this medium to become a household name, a star. And with stardom comes privilege. Serling changed perceptions the public held about writers; he made the profession desirable, and with a smoldering Pall Mall glued to his fingers even downright cool. Since the show boasted no series regulars, the story became the star. Serling was more than happy to share the spotlight with his staff writers, usually going out of his way to make sure they received any credit due. For his 1961 Emmy acceptance speech, Serling held the award and simply said, “George, Chuck, Dick—we’ll take this thing back to the office tomorrow and figure out how to cut it up four ways,” referring to The Twilight Zone’s writers George Clayton Johnson, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson. Because of Rod Serling, the writer became the identity of his or her television series and made the leap from simple scribe to producer.
This isn’t to say that this marked the last time a television writer got shafted by the people who sign the checks. Simply calling a writer an executive producer does not bestow upon that artist business savvy, and bad deals get made every day. J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote almost every episode of his smash syndicated hit Babylon 5, has never seen one penny of residuals from his show, which made Warner Brothers one billion dollars. According to Straczynski, “By the terms of my contract, if a set on a WB movie burns down in Botswana, they can charge it against B5's profits.” He even tried to have his credit on Crusade (a Babylon 5 spin-off) read “Eiben Scrood,” but the WGA prevented him from logging this not-so-subtle protest citing, “It ‘diminished the value’ of the show and basically made light of the studio.” But such incidents of “Hollywood accounting” among television writers are far less widespread than among their movie counterparts. Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, refuses to option the second novel in the series as such accounting practices have converted the film’s commercial success into a net loss, garnering Groom nothing in promised residuals. On his disinterest to sell Gump and Co., the southern author claims that he “cannot in good conscience allow money to be wasted on a failure,” probably while smirking and sipping a mint julep.
So it’s obvious that the real power in the entertainment industry lies with the producers. Anyone who followed the recent WGA strike and subsequent resolution knows that producers hold all the cards in this industry. After all, John Wells (executive producer of ER, The West Wing, and almost all other dramas ever shown on network television) was one of the chief poster boys the WGA crowded behind when the time came to negotiate peace with the AMPTP. It takes a thief to catch a thief, so a writer who’s also a producer probably seemed like a lead pipe cinch. Maybe this was an accurate philosophy considering on February 12, 2008, after 100 days marching the picket line, 92.5% of the WGA’s membership voted for ending the work stoppage. As part of the renegotiation, writers are now entitled to a piece of internet and new media residuals previously withheld by producers. But they settled for far less than originally desired. Granted, the WGA did a poor job of negotiating before the strike last October. They went to the AMPTP and asked for exactly what they wanted, and anyone who’s ever played Monopoly knows that’s not how it works. If you’ve got Boardwalk and I want it, I offer you $400. You laugh in my face, reply, “You’re ridiculous, I paid $400. Give me a thousand,” and we settle on $750. One side plays highball, the other plays low and you meet in the middle. But as stated earlier, this is a group of artists, not battle-hardened businessmen.
What’s distressing about the strike is that no real ground was gained by the writers. The producers never really thought they could hold onto 100% of the profits from new media. They always knew they’d have to slice off a piece of that pastry, and new media will grow into a nice sized pie in the next few years. The producers let the writers wave their signs outside of the studios and waited until all that defiant optimism deflated from empty bank accounts and sore feet. It was a mistake to let producers like John Wells come in to negotiate with the AMPTP. No disrespect to Mr. Wells, I’m sure he’s the gravy without the bowl, but a man with nothing to lose will always fight the hardest, and the negotiators the WGA chose stood to lose plenty. If you’re one of the rare people in Hollywood running a television show that’s been placed on hold, it’s in your best interest to get the cameras rolling again. That sort of agenda makes it far easier to reconcile taking a raw deal for the greater good of your cast, your crew, and that meaty mortgage note coming up on your beach house in Malibu. Furthermore, caving so early has put SAG in a vulnerable position in its own current negotiations with the AMPTP. Had the WGA held out longer and teamed up with SAG, it would have stood a much better chance at getting the points originally requested.
So now the WGA strike is over, the SAG strike looms, show runners are back to making money hand over fist, and feature writers are happy making far more than they ever could digging ditches like most regular Americans while knowing they should be making a lot more. And that’s the tightrope screenwriters walk which will continue to marginalize their effort. They know they should be happy with those mid to high six figures because it beats making $10 an hour to flip patties at In & Out, and this rationalization keeps them from fighting an uphill battle for what they really deserve. The message here is simple: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. More and more writers should take an active role in producing. Agents and managers of writers should negotiate contracts which include their clients as producers. If you want to make sure you’ll always be in the big game on Sunday, you better own the team.
—Jacob J. Mauldin