All the write angles

WGA hosts wide-ranging weekend summit

Tom Schulman summed up a central message that panelists brought to a first-of-its-kind writers conference in Santa Monica: “Fight.”

“Every one of them is tenacious,” he told the gathering on Sunday. “I couldn’t imagine more tenacity in one weekend.”

But “Words Into Pictures,” a three-day confab organized by the Writers Guild Foundation, was not so much fundraiser or union rally as it was the latest in an escalating effort among industry scribes to get more recognition in the business.

Ever more aware that simply complaining may only reinforce the image of writer as whiner, scribes have now taken steps to do something different. They have upped their PR budget at the Writers Guild of America. Some have taken on publicists. And the Writers Guild Foundation — headed by John Furia Jr. — decided in February to go for broke by holding the weekendlong seminar, distinguishing their event from other screenwriting confabs through the sheer lineup of panelists and moderators. More than 1,000 people attended the event, well above expectations.

Stars turn out

The confab (costing $295 for WGA members, $335 for nonmembers) at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel featured sessions with the scribe star power of William Goldman, Robert Towne and Oliver Stone (the latter moderated by Daily Variety’s Todd McCarthy); panels featuring everyone from Gareth Wigan to Wallace Shawn, Jamie Tarses to Tracey Ullman; and a Saturday night cocktail party with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau performing I.A.L. Diamond’s skit “Quizzically.” (At that event, with a crush of people in the Loews atrium, some veteran scribes took to comparing it to VJ Day.)

Along with familiar names were spirited debates over the writer and their place in the industry.

Scribes went back and forth with directors over the auteur theory; critics were put on the spot for not mentioning writers in their reviews; studio execs defended the flood of megapics that seemingly write themselves via merchandising and marketing possibilities; even agents had to have their day of reckoning with sessions entitled “Why Haven’t You Returned My Call?” (Making for some awkward moments, more than a few writers said they ran into agents who had once rejected their overtures for representation.)

A panel on “Romance, Love and Sex on Screen” had scribes talking of the difficulties of convincing studios to go for romantic comedy pics rather than more lowbrow action fare. Fay Kanin bemoaned the preponderance of ribald sex scenes on screen and questioned their need. And she lamented the loss of the sweeping romantic pics, such as “Dr. Zhivago.”

“Write your congressman,” moderator Merrill Markoe chimed in.

The difference of opinion in the group was apparent in their choices for best in the romantic pic genre. Cameron Crowe picked “The Apartment.” Nora Ephron picked “It Happened One Night.” Zalman King? “Last Tango in Paris.”

Other panels dealt with the debate over political correctness, including David Milch and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; others were sessions with the creators of “Frasier” and “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter. A session on creative freedom and social responsibility featured a brief flare-up between Lionel Chetwynd, who wrote TNT’s “Kissinger & Nixon,” and Bob Scheer, a consultant on the feature “Nixon,” over the truthfulness of their respective projects.

Coming up short

Not surprisingly, the confab brought the usual references to scribes getting the shaft via the notorious net profits. Ron Bass noted that “Rain Man” grossed $500 million worldwide, but every financial statement he receives shows it “gets farther away from profitability” because Dustin Hoffman, Barry Levinson and Tom Cruise are gross participants.

But much of the talk had to do with the rifts in the industry that go beyond compensation (writers last year posted record earnings). Even more prevalent was the scribe’s call for a bigger place in the industry publicity machine. Feature press junkets often ignore the writer but include the director. In the words of Patrick Sheane Duncan, who wrote and produced “Mr. Holland’s Opus”: “We’re the ugly kid locked in the closet while everyone else parties.”

Duncan was on a panel debating the use of the so-called “possessory credit,” the “A film by …” credit that has for years been the writer’s frustration because it names the director as the author of the work, and because it is now given to even first-time directors.

The credit — which many writers have taken to calling the “vanity credit” — has been the source of much tension between the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the studios.

Studio execs say that the problem is a matter of precedence: Give it to one director and it is tough saying no to the next.

“It seems easy for most people on the panel to agree that there are directors and there are directors,” said Wigan, co-vice chairman of the Col TriStar Motion Picture Group. But when it comes time to dealmaking, he said, execs face the question: “Do you really want to insult him with ‘You know, you’re really not there yet’?”

Wigan pointed out that there is nothing to keep writers from asking for the credit as well, pointing to Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon. “I’m not encouraging everyone to do this, but it is permissible.”

Credit out of control

The sole director on the panel, Mark Rydell (DGA president Gene Reynolds was a no-show), agreed that the possessory credit had gotten out of hand. But he said there are cases where it is warranted, such as helmers who actually bring in audiences, like Steven Spielberg.

“Unfortunately it has become automatic,” he said. “It is patently foolish for it to become automatic.”

To be sure, in the last WGA negotiations, studios agreed to try to curb the use of the credit, and early signs show that studios like Warner Bros. and Universal have made progress. Brian Walton, executive director of the Writers Guild of America West, said they have “concrete evidence” that the credit is down significantly. He even predicted that the credit would “be gone by the year 2000 or people will be too embarrassed to take it.”

The situation is much different in TV, where the writer is in the driver’s seat and many directors are hired on an episode-by-episode basis. One story relayed by writer Larry Konner was that of “ER” exec producer John Wells, hired recently to polish up a feature script on a troubled big-budget production.

“They paid him a ton of money,” Konner said. “But when he got there they dictated exactly what he should be doing.

“Here is a guy who gets 50 million people to tune in each week,” he added. “Suddenly he’s a writer on a feature and he is the low man on the totem pole.”

But in both mediums, most writers do not own the copyright to their work; with scripts as “works for hire,” the studios do.

In the panel “A Question of Authorship,” scribes like Callie Khouri, Melville Shavelson and Sherwood Schwartz outlined the ironies of not holding the copyright on the works they created. Khouri’s example: A studio could do a “Thelma & Louise” sequel without her input. And there is Schwartz, who recently spotted a “Gilligan’s Island” T-shirt that labeled the copyright as “Ted Turner and Phil Silvers’ three daughters.”

“Without the copyright, you can’t distribute, you can’t merchandise, you can’t do sequels, unless they agree to it,” said Schwartz, who does own the rights to the characters from “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.” “I am not saying writers should have all of the copyright, but there has to be some new balance.”

Yet Schwartz and others doubt that it is an issue that the guild rank and file would champion to go out on strike.

Brand awareness

In fact, in what may be a contrast to the strike-filled 1980s, writers now are talking of ways to “brand” their names, to raise the public’s level of awareness of the writer to that enjoyed by directors. (Schwartz may be one of the few who gets letters asking for autographed pictures.)

Amon
g the trends: Writers taking on managers. That was noted at a session on dealmaking in the business, moderated by Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart. Many in the panel of agents and lawyers expressed their frustrations at having the intricacies of their deals detailed in the papers, often inaccurately. Said Robert Bookman of CAA: “I think writers’ privacy needs to be protected, I think deals need to be protected.”

But Marti Blumenthal of Writers & Artists Agency had a different take: “I think one of the things that helps writers is to have their deals, what they are getting, as available as possible, the bigger the better. That helps create a brand name, and I think the more we can create a brand name the more we can make better deals.”

Mixed in with all of the talk of dealmaking were sessions on pitching and script notes that drew a flock of aspiring screenwriters, with some flying in from Utah and even Miami. In fact, despite a large turnout of agents, studio and TV execs, aspiring writers may have made up perhaps the largest share of attendees, with many taking advantage of a WGA script registration booth set up in the hotel.

For all the summitry over the writer’s role and the changes in the business, many minds were focused on the very old topic of breaking in. At one panel, Jeff Greenfield cautioned the audience to exit immediately at the program’s end, noting that some mikes had been smashed in the rush of scribes to hand execs their scripts.

“Sounds like a rock concert,” he quipped.

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