Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reimagining the Job of Screenwriter

I recently ran into my friend and colleague Ross LaManna (creator of the Rush Hour franchise and chair of the undergraduate film department at Art Center College). We got to talking about the impossibility of selling an original movie pitch to a studio these days. This change in the way the industry is functioning has been a popular topic among screenwriters the last couple years.

When I started film school most screenwriters pretty much worked exclusively in feature film. Sure, a few did double duty as playwrights and many would go off to write "their novel" late in their careers. And of course Hollywood recruited playwrights and novelist to write screenplays. But generally the job description of screenwriter meant you wrote movies. (And the job description of TV writer meant you wrote TV... exclusively.)

Things have been changing over the last decade. First, writers started crossing back and forth between TV and film more frequently (partly because the improving quality of TV writing removed the stigma). Now people who write movies also frequently write comic books, video games and webisodes.

The feature business has changed dramatically over the same time frame. A feature film used to be considered a good way to launch a franchise. There have always been movies based on books (Gone With the Wind) and plays (Casablanca). But big multi-media franchises like Alien, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Predator, the Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Arc and the Matrix got their starts as original feature films that then spawned games, toys, TV shows and comic books. These days it's incredibly rare for a studio to take a leap on that kind of property if it hasn't made an appearance in another medium first.

Why? That could be the topic of a whole other post. The main reason is fear. The studios have all been bought by big corporations (or in the case of Disney grown into a big corporation where the movie studio is just a small division). Corporations don’t like risk and they don’t like subjective decisions. Deciding whether a spec script is good or bad is risky and subjective. To a corporation it’s much safer to buy a property that’s “proven” itself in another medium. The fact that statistically this approach does not in any way improve the chance of success of the resulting movie is conveniently ignored.

Also, it used to be that most movies were considered viable products in and of themselves. Releasing a feature film was a perfectly acceptable business model even if it didn't spawn sequels or clothing lines. But these days that is also becoming rare. The studios and their corporate overlords think it's just too hard to make money on a stand-alone feature film. They're increasingly only interested in franchises with merchandising potential.

(This has meant the fading of certain genres such as the adult drama. If you love these kinds of movies and are heartbroken that they’re becoming nearly impossible to get made, I feel for you. And it probably won’t ease your pain when I point out that there have always been genres that fall out of favor in film. The western and the musical mostly died out fifty years ago. The courtroom drama has been dead for about a decade, killed by the high quality of lawyer shows on TV. And the war movie died out somewhere between those. And if you’re going to bring up Unforgiven, Chicago and Saving Private Ryan then all I can say is one successful movie a decade does not make a viable genre.)

Now of course there is still work for the feature film screenwriter in this new Hollywood order. Somebody needs to adapt the comic books, video games, board games and paintings (yes somebody bought the movie rights to a painting) into movies. And you get paid a pretty good fee to do it. The only kind of writing that generally pays more is TV writing.

But if you’re interested in telling original stories, as I am, then I’m starting to think the best approach is change your perspective on what you do. Maybe we shouldn’t think of ourselves as screenwriters so much as creators of intellectual property (also known as IP).

I’m currently writing content for a Facebook game while Ross is about to have a graphic novel he co-wrote published. Both are based on ideas we originally conceived of as feature films. And we both think we’re more likely to get the film made by selling the rights to our IP after it appears in another form. I could list dozens of other established screenwriters who are taking a similar approach.

No matter what form it takes storytelling at its core is based on fundamental things: character, conflict, emotion, resolution. But each medium is different. Executing a scene in a comic book requires completely different things than executing the same scene on film. Time works differently. There’s no motion. Space is at a premium. You have to capture key moments that convey the broader scope. So if you’re going to try to launch your film ideas in another medium first, it would behoove you to study that medium carefully.

There are other issues to consider. Who pays for creating these games, comic books, etc.? If you don’t want to spend your own money to self-publish you have to sell your ideas to someone else. But if you can’t convince a comic book company that your idea is good you probably won’t be able to sell it in Hollywood either. And of course you have to be careful in the contract about who gets an ownership stake in the underlying IP. Nothing is ever easy!

This business stuff is cyclical, of course. But the cycles tend to be measured in decades. Are you willing to wait ten or twenty years to get your original ideas out there to an audience? I’m no longer thinking of myself as a “screenwriter” but as a “creator of intellectual property.” Maybe you should consider that as well.


Sanket said...

Does that mean none of us is going to break into the business?

Doug Eboch said...

The odds are tougher than they've ever been, or at least since I started. But new writers continue to break in. You just aren't likely to ever see your spec script produced. They become samples to get adaptation jobs.

The exceptions are mostly comedy and low budget horror.

Doug Eboch said...

By the way, I never said there wasn't work for screenwriters. The post was about the kind of work available today.

elaine said...

Hi Doug,
Thanks for a really interesting post. From where I am (the south of France), Hollywood becomes more irrelevant with each day that passes. The death of Hollywood? Who cares. The descent into mass-market pulp has been going on for years. The sooner it's own greed kills it off for good, the better. Happily, there is a film-making world outside of Hollywood where quality lives on.

Sanket said...

Doug, Was wondering if you could analyze Fargo? The script and film seem simple and straight forward, i.e. not complex material at all. Yet it is very effective and powerful.

I'm sure it has several nuances that I and many others can't even think of. Would appreciate your keen insight into it.

Thank you.

PoetCSW said...

Writing is difficult regardless of the final medium. My publishers are cutting freelance rates and editing jobs are pleading poverty. As a playwright, not much better. The Dramatist Guild and TCG have been discussing the shift even within local theatre to "tried and true" names -- ideally plays associated with movies.

Clearly one has to be "multimodal" in approach. It has never been easy for writers, but there are new challenges. Self-publishing risks swamping great writers within a sea of mediocrity, or it might be a great new world of virtual "small presses."

Is it long before Webisodes and pico-indie films are the equivalent of ePubs?