Monday, November 17, 2008

State of the Business Fall 2008

Since I started writing professionally enough to have an attorney, pretty much every time I talked to her she would tell me, "it's a really bad time for screenwriters right now."  After awhile I'd just laugh and ask, "when was it a good time?"  Then I'd go off and continue writing and pitching because, really, what was the alternative?  I wasn't going to get work sitting around NOT writing.

Well, now it really is a bad time for screenwriters.

This is the picture of the State of the Feature Screenwriting Business that I've been able to gather by talking to writers, agents and producers over the last two months or so.  There are a couple of short term forces dragging down the business right now:  

First is concern over whether SAG will strike and when.  I don't think there's much appetite for a strike, but at the same time the studios aren't giving the union a lot of other options.  And a strike right now would seriously devastate the business.

The second is the credit crunch which is making film financing difficult even for big studio films and nearly impossible for independent films.  In addition to a pull back in equity, most films are at least partially financed with borrowed money and there doesn't appear to be much money out there to borrow.

Those issues will likely resolve themselves in the next six months.  In the meantime, everyone is afraid to put anything into motion in such an unpredictable environment.  Most buyers seem to be going into an early holiday hibernation.  They'll poke their heads out January 1st when most new fiscal year budgets start.  If they see their shadows and get scared back underground we could be in for a long, painful winter.

Of more long term concern, studios are cutting back on the number of movies produced.  This is actually overdue.  The glut of films in the market over the last few years was causing mid-level films to cannibalize each other.  The downside, of course, is fewer films means fewer jobs for writers.  And probably less risk taking meaning less interesting material.  And woe to the people trying to break in right now with so many previously working writers hitting the market desperate for a gig.

It's even worse in the indie arena.  A shakeout would also be good for that industry, allowing specialty theaters, audiences and press to focus on fewer films, thus increasing each film's likelihood of finding an audience.  But again, that means fewer people get a chance to make films.

In this regard it's interesting to look over recent indie film history.  A lot has been made about cheap, high quality film technology democratizing the business.  The thought is that an undiscovered, extremely talented aspiring filmmaker from somewhere like the Midwest who previously would have been shut out of the system can now break through.  And that has and will happen.

The trouble is there is no "gatekeeping" now.  A decade and a half ago an indie filmmaker had to convince someone with some money that they and their film were worthy of investment.  At least one and probably several people had to agree that this project was good.  Now all a filmmaker needs is a credit card.  This has allowed too many untalented, inexperienced aspiring filmmakers to flood the market with bad films... meaning those real undiscovered talents have trouble rising above the crap.  Turns out it's just as hard to break in now as it ever was.

I wish I had a happy ending here.  Normally I'm a pretty upbeat guy.  And I do believe that no matter what studios will keep making movies.  And of course someone will get to write them. But man is it bleak out there right now.  Good luck, everyone!

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