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Power-plays propel, elude pic, TV writers

Looking for a lively, and long-winded, debate? Throw several writers–from TV and movies–into a room and ask them one simple question: How much power do writers have in Hollywood? Make sure there are no blunt objects or squishy foods within reach.

A wide divergence of opinion, from a John Milius (“they’re treated like crap”) to a J.F. Lawton (“enormously powerful, which is why everybody tries to keep them down”) will emerge from the cacaphony. But the absence of consensus says a great deal about the power of writers in Hollywood.

How much or how little influence writers exert has a great deal to do with their talent, their personality, their ambition and the medium in which they have chosen to devote their energies.

In a sense, everyone is right. Writers exert a great deal of influence even when they don’t receive credit for it.

Writers’ basic creative rights in the filmmaking process are engraved in print and available from the Writer’s Guild of America West. However, as WGA West exec director Brian Walton stresses, these are minimum terms, rights that are guaranteed to everyone from established writers like Robert Towne to Skippy Horowitz, who just got off the bus from Oshkosh, Wisc. Beyond that, says Walton , “We provide suggestions on how to try and negotiate above the basic minimum agreement.”

And that’s where the power of film and teleplay writers becomes individualized. “Generally speaking,” says Walton, “power is perception.”

Some choose to work in television because it has come to be considered a writers’ medium, particularly series TV, and increasingly, movies of the week.

Don Roos labored in TV for eight years before bridging over to the big screen with scripts for “Single White Female” and the upcoming “Love Field.”

The difference was pronounced. “A writer is much more powerful in television because he shapes the vision of a project. A director comes in maybe eight days before the shoot. So there’s less time for his imprint.” Television is driven bydialogue and character, two elements that empower the writer, say Timothy Wurtz and Glenn Benest (writers of such TV movies as “Make It Lie,” and “Stranger in the House.”). “Everything revolves around the script,” they say. “And so writers are paid more deference.”

Because of the volume of material needed for television, it also provides another, invaluable freedom for the writer, the opportunity to create a broader range of material. The ability to prove his mettle in varied forms and subjects also accrues the writer greater ultimate control, say Wurtz and Benest.

The television series is the name of the game for power, say teleplay writers. “In film, writers are regarded as completely replaceable,” says Susan Fales, writer for the TV series “A Different World.””And it shows in the final product.”

Staff writers like “Home Improvement’s” Billy Riback says the security of being in such a position ensures that “a fairly high percentage of what you put in your draft comes out intact. It’s like writing a little play a week. Your vision comes through.”

Time, which in TV means money, is definitely on the side of the scribe, says movie-of-the-week- writer Jonathan Estrin. “The time pressures in television are significant,” he says.

In features, more time and money are devoted to development and many more films are developed than are ever produced–multiwriter costs are built into the production. But in television, such extravagance is financially intolerable. One or, perhaps,two writers are brought in on a project, says Estrin. They are not to be considered interchangeable, and, therefore, their standing in the creative process is stronger.

That power increases with experience, says another movie-of-the-week veteran, Stephanie Liss. “The more I do, the more attention I get–and respect. They respect my opinion when I don’t want to make changes. Nine out of 10 times I win.”

Film, however, is an entirely different animal, insist writers. It’s a director’s medium. And a star’s medium. That puts writers in third place from the start (although some writers insist that films today are less director-driven than story-driven).

“Actors like Dustin Hoffman decide on the director they’ll work with,” says veteran scribe and director Frank Pierson. “The writer’s position is lower unless he has the personality and talent to stay with the project.”

Respect, for writers, has to be earned. One way is to come to screenwriting from another field, like the theater. Alfred Uhry, who won an Academy Award for adapting his play “Driving Miss Daisy,” came to Hollywood with cache, or rather Hollywood came to him for his cache. “I came out with a Pulitzer, so they don’t ask me to do ‘Dr. Giggles II.”‘

Another way to ensure greater control is for writers to generate their own material. “When you sell a spec script you’re immediately in a stronger power position than as a writer for hire,” says Barry Sandler (“Crimes of Passion”).

Spec scripts are risky–you’re working for free–but the rewards are potentially greater. “Writers have a kind of power no one else has,” says writer/director James Toback (“Bugsy”). “You can’t do a movie without a script.”

In television, writers are more attuned to this power. And recently, this mind-set has begun to spill over into the film industry during the spec-script binge, when original material was selling for as much as $ 3 million.

Lawton, who sold “Under Siege” for $ 1 million, sees this as proof positive of the writer’s power, and says the studios’ drive to kill the spec-script market is an effort to put writers back in their place. He singles out Joe Eszterhas (“Basic Instinct”) as one writer “who continues to have power, because he makes them bid on his scripts.”

Eszterhas says he’s accumulated power through success. “People are more reluctant to mess with my scripts now because these days no one is sure of anything.”

“Track record has less effect than you think,” says Steven De Souza, who is writing the script for “Beverly Hills Cop III.”

De Souza opines that the current economic crunch in the entertainment industry is having a ripple effect on feature films. “Just as in TV, they don’t have the money to change writers, and they work with the same people over and over, the economic squeeze in movies will mean fewer musical chairs.”

Paper chase

The mistake writers make, says Milius, is chasing after money, selling a script out to the highest bidder and relinquishing power.

“The solution is to stick up for yourself,” says Milius.

Roos echoes those sentiments. “Writers have to remember he’s the one with the most conviction (since the writer created the project). They often don’t assert their power, though it’s there if they bother to take a position.” And much of this depends on the dynamic of the writers’ working relationship with the other creative talent–directors and actors. “It behooves a writer to be selective with whom they work,” says Eszterhas.

“You have to sell to those who’ll keep your vision,” says Toback. “Get those people together and then find the money to produce the film–not the other way around,” he cautions.

“The temptation for all writers is to sell early,” Toback continues. And though Toback is now comfortable enough to make such pronouncements, he warns those who would take the money and run that, “by selling, you have a career. But you’re not sure what kind of career.”

There is a middle ground. It could be called making the best of any situation. As Sandler points out, “The writer’s power changes according to the people he works with.” Some of it has to do with the actual talent, but much of it has to do with the writer’s attitude, knowing when to insist without seeming threatening, where to push without sounding abrasive, how to stay on a project and contribute without being banished from the set.

“A lot depends on the director and stars’ willingness to share power,” says Roos, who has had strong collaborative experiences with Barbet Schroeder on “Single White Female” and Jonathan Kaplan on “Love Field” (one of the few directors who doesn’t take a possessory credit on films because he regards them as a true collaborative process).

Power, for writers, is ultimately in the details, in the gray areas, say script sages.

“The fatal mistake,” says Eszterhas, “is for writers to have a victim attitude.”

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