Specialty divisions help increase the number of quality scripts being produced

Looking at this year’s Writers Guild of America Awards nominees, there’s a sense that for screenwriters, it’s “A Tale of Two Cities” all over again — the best of times and the worst of times.

Hang around some scribes for a while and you’ll hear plenty about the worst of times. Lack of respect on the creative-rights front; laughable studio notes; and a general lack of interest in fresh, original writing at the studios, they’ll lament.

But if you listen to David Freeman, a WGA board member and longtime screenwriting teacher, these really are the best of times.

Looking at the adapted category, “the news is that two of the five (nominated) scripts, ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ and ‘Sideways,’ wouldn’t have existed as scripts with decent releases some 10 years,” Freeman says. “Those two pictures would not have found their way into the public mind some years ago.”

He’s talking about what IFC Films senior veep of production and acquisitions Caroline Kaplan calls “the pre-‘sex, lies and videotape’ era,” when indies weren’t widely seen.

Since then, the studios have spotted a market for niche pictures, and have opened specialty divisions to make them. Thus there are more quality scripts being produced — even if the parent studios won’t touch them.

“The quality is there,” says Kaplan, “and if the film is really working and it becomes a word-of-mouth film, I don’t think there’s any stigma to not being a studio-financed film.”

Freeman points to this year’s nominees and sees plenty of evidence of what Kaplan is saying.

“On the (original) side,” says Freeman, ” ‘Eternal Sunshine’: A studio wouldn’t read that, and it’s the best script of the whole bunch. ‘Garden State’: A studio wouldn’t read to the end of that thing. ‘Hotel Rwanda’: A studio might have developed that out of a sense of guilt or if a star had wanted to do that script.”

Add in “Kinsey,” he says, and you have four of five original scripts that would never have been as widely seen in years past. “It’s healthy for the business. It’s certainly healthy for writers. It’s the kind of thing that writers want to do on their own. This is not the kind of thing that appears on studio schedules.”

They are the kind of thing, though, that appears on critics’ best-of lists and awards rolls. There are only a few real surprises among the WGA noms in that respect, most notably comedy “Mean Girls,” in the adapted screenplay category.

So the WGA, for the most part, likes the same scripts that other groups did. But when people look back at 2004 decades from now, will those be the films that are saluted?

Former WGA prexy Del Reissman says maybe not, as good as these pics are. “I think generally (the WGA nominees) deserve their attention. That attention may not last and this may change in a few years. We may look back in a few years we may say, ‘That was OK. It was just OK.’ These judgments are very flexible, and they certainly change from generation to generation.”

This year’s nominees impressed him with their strong characters and their foundation in human relationships, but “I think good pictures in any year are grounded in character and relationships.”

He points to certain film noir offerings and Westerns of years past as examples of pics that weren’t taken seriously in their time but are now regarded as classics.

In 2004, he says, there were some action pic screenplays that might get more attention in the future, notably “Spider-Man 2” and “The Bourne Supremacy.”

“I hear conversations all the time about ‘I don’t want to see any more explosions,’ ” says Reissman. “Well, there are explosions and there are explosions. There are explosions that are necessary for telling the tale.”

Even Michelle Satter of the Sundance Institute — a place not known for nurturing superhero movies — names “The Incredibles” as a genre script that she likes. Though “Incredibles” didn’t make the cut, Satter is still generally excited about this year’s nominees.

Not only are they strongly character-driven stories, she says, but “they all represent singular, unique voices. If they’re not writer-directors, they’re writers that are working in close collaboration with their directors. They’re all films that absolutely resonate, and in compelling unique ways bear witness to the world we live in.”

Satter is impressed to see such a diverse group exploring characters taking authentic risks. That doesn’t just mean the real-life risks of the characters in “Hotel Rwanda.” She also includes “Garden State.” “To go off medication, to risk feeling, is a huge risk. In ‘Sideways,’ it’s the risk of connection.”

In the same vein, Kaplan says she’s gratified to see so many indies on the list, even if “indie” now includes films connected with studios.

Satter says she doesn’t think it’s ever going to be easy to make these kinds of worthy films, but “I would look at this group and still be inspired to do the work.”

So why, then, do so many writers talk like it’s the worst of times?

Freeman blames the decline of generous studio development deals. “It’s a good time to be a screenwriter,” he says, “as long as you’re not trying to get rich.”

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