Friday, 18 June 2010

Hollywood Babble On & On #536: What To Do With The Writers?

Welcome to the show folks...

Warner Bros. has announced that they will now be strictly enforcing their deadlines on writers to turn in their drafts. The studio says that they have to do it because they go and sign up directors and stars to their movies, but then have to wait sometimes months for a completed draft to come in. They used to be more comfortable with waiting, wanting quality over speed, but now they want more speed because time is money, and the economy is cutting back on everyone's time.

The writers case is that they often have to wait months to get paid, even the precious "commencement" payments that are supposed to keep them in gin and nacho chips during the 12 weeks usually contracted for a first draft. They are also forced to take on multiple assignments at the same time, partially because of the chronically late payments, but also because studios force them into something called a "One Step" deal. A one step deal basically means that they have one crack at the bat to get the script done the way the studio likes, and if they don't, the job goes to someone else. If they're desperate to stay on the script, they can do a free pass, but they usually still get hosed in the end.

The studio's logic is that they don't want to get hung up on someone trying to rewrite their way out of a hole, and want to replace that person with someone else who can do something new and quick. Many times studios assign multiple writers on the same project at the same time, and then pick and choose the bits that play best with the focus groups the studio marketing department picked up in the parking lot of the Home Depot. The recent A-Team movies went through 11 writers that we know of. You don't need 11 writers for a movie version of the A-Team.

However, the chickens are coming home to roost. Ticket sales are down compared to past summers, and the biggest complaint among moviegoers is that big feature films aren't delivering the stories they want, and cable TV is.

It wasn't always like this. During the Golden Age of Hollywood writers were under contract to the studios. Then they were paid a very good weekly salary for the time, they worked in an office in the "Writer's Building" on the studio lot, dividing their time between adaptations, and their own original work. If someone was stuck, story problems were handled more collaboratively by people more directly involved with the project than today. Today's version of studio-producer-writer collaboration usually consists of a bunch hastily scribbled notes from some producer or executive with little or no real connection to the project, usually contradicting each other in everything except the demand for more fart jokes.

People complain that it was an era of "slavery" and in some aspects, it was, but it was also an era where there were a hell of a lot of well written movies made back then.

So let's look at some major facts about writers:

1. Writers thrive on deadlines. Most writers find deadlines invigorating, it gets the adrenaline pumping and compels them to stop surfing for videos about Japanese nurses being naughty and get to work. The great majority of writers meet their deadlines, because it shows to their employers that they are reliable, and available for other assignments so they can achieve their dream and make their dream-project about the sass-talking robot that learns about love from an orangutan addicted to Kraft dinner.

2. Writers thrive on collaboration. It's a lonely business, and there's nothing more invigorating than being able to hash out ideas with other writers without fear or favor. You'd be surprised what can come out of such gatherings.

3. Writers thrive on security. You'd be amazed how much a writer can get done quickly if they're not worrying about paying the rent on their grotty little bedsit apartment, or can buy real groceries instead of living off ramen noodles.

What can we do with these simple basic facts?

1. Keep the deadlines, but do what it takes to help the writers meet them. Robert Towne wrote Chinatown, which put him eternally in the pantheon of screenwriting legends. But he is notoriously slow, and tended to overwrite projects to an epic degree. When he started out working for Roger Corman, the legendary exploitation auteur used to lock him in a room with a sign on the door reading: "You May Feed The Writer, But Don't Let Him Out Until He Delivers His Day's Pages." I know it sounds harsh, but remember, 99% of writers don't need those sorts of drastic measures. For the majority, all you have to do is...

2. Promote collaborations. Like I said earlier, it's a lonely business. So regular meetings of writers working for a given producer and/or studio to hash out problems on each others projects might prove to be very helpful. Especially if such meetings are held in a non-competitive atmosphere where they can speak freely about their work. If you need rules to guide these meetings to keep them from turning into brawls, then compose some, it's not that hard. If chemistry forms between teams of writers, then get them working together.

3. Promote writer comfort. Most writers write because they have to, not just because they want to. If they don't have to worry about their bills, food, clothing, or shelter, they will be more productive. So pay them what they're owed on time, in full, and stop playing silly bugger games to pinch some pennies out of their pasty, pimple-dotted hides.

Maybe then Hollywood might get back to what made it great, making good stories and selling them to the world.


  1. Hey, this was one of your most astute pieces oh Furious D. The main problem Hollywood studios have right now is WHERE THE HELL ARE THE GOOD/GREAT STORIES WE ALL WANT TO SEE? Where are the mysteries/detective stories like Chinatown...L.A.Confidential, or the clever scripts like Usual Suspects, Lone Star,Shakespeare in Love,The Insider, Amadeus,The Last Emperor,Moonstruck,A Beautiful Mind,Wonder Boys,etc;etc;.This industry needs to look at what the public is reading, experiencing,and remembering.A friend and I were mourning the loss of charm in films,such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,I Remember Mama,Tender Mercies,and also Forrest Gump...yes that has late 20th century charm. I really do wish Furious D that you would write more about what is missing from film writing these days,sine it is so fundamental.

  2. What is HW giving us a 500 mil ecopeice that made money because it has was nothing but a 3D special effects gimmick.
    I thought District 9 and The Wrestler were far better films and were made on a fraction of Avatar's Budget.

    Stories started to suffer when the HW elite cared more about shoving their beliefs down our throats wither we liked it or not.

    I am a aspiring writer I originally wanted to to feature film, now I have gravitated toward TV because that is where the best writing is.

    True Blood vs Twilight Movies, when it comes to story TB bitchslaps what is basically nothing more than supermarket romance novels.

    I am right about one prediction Jonah Hex has bombed, can we offically call Megan Fox box office poison? To be fair it did go up against Toy Story 3, a film based on a obscure comic book went up against a well known and well made sequel It did not stand a chance. Who decided on that release date?