Piece of the Revenue Pie Shrinking for Entertainment Creators

Peter Bart Column

With the spec market kaput and paydays plummeting, scribe tribe drumbeat is downbeat

Hollywood’s creative community is trying to figure out the following anomaly: While distributors of entertainment are carving out an ever bigger slice of the revenue pie, the creators of entertainment have an ever shrinking one.

If you’re skeptical about this, study the glowing earnings reports of the multinationals, then contrast the trends with random data on writers or actors. For example, writers of feature films earned 34% less in aggregate last year than they did five years ago (TV writers did only marginally better), according to the Writers Guild of America.

We all know that writers are chronic complainers, but at this moment in time they may actually have something to complain about. It’s getting tougher to make a living at the writing trade.

“Working as a feature film writer has gone from a poor career choice to a blood sport,” observes screenwriter John C. Richards.

Given this phenomenon, I decided to spend some time talking with a cross-section of writers to discover their strategies for survival in a tough economy. I’ve focused on working writers, avoiding weekend dabblers as well as that elite fraternity of overpaid rewrite gurus who make $100,000 a week (and up) to do last minute body-and-fender work on superhero epics.

The keys to survival? Versatility, resilience and an understanding that screenwriting is now akin to guerrilla warfare.

“When a door opens, you plunge through it,” notes Bruce Feirstein, who is starting a script to be shot by a Chinese company in Shanghai. Underscoring his versatility, Feirstein has written three James Bond movies, five Bond videogames, plus random books and scripts on other subjects; he also serves as a contributor to Vanity Fair and is developing a TV show for eOne. The vidgame route came as a surprise to him. “It was not exactly my plan in life to become a videogame rock star,” he acknowledges.

Survival and versatility are redefined by Invention Films topper Nicholas Weinstock as the Three Things Doctrine. “Every writer in Hollywood should be working on at least three projects at all times given the current landscape of grudging movie studios and fickle television networks,” he explains.

“It’s not just about ‘gaming’ the system,” says Weinstock. “It’s really about staying emotionally sane. Even two projects is too few, leaving you just two bad phone calls away from the terror and desperation of an utterly blank slate.”

Weinstock presently runs the Fox Writers Studio, a creative think tank involving six writers based at 20th Century-Fox, and also has a production slate of five prospective films to look after. Yet, he worked at jobs ranging from dishwasher to speech writer over a period of 10 years while authoring three books — and still feels he was too slow, too exposed and too naive about the rules of survival.

Some writers who experienced early success have found themselves frustrated over their inability to instantly replicate it. Richards, once a New Orleans musician, earned a Cannes festival screenplay award and a stream of offers after writing the movie “Nurse Betty,” which starred Renee Zellweger. “I always felt I could write my way out of any difficult stretch, if that happened to me, by turning out spec scripts,” says Richards. Trouble is, the once-golden spec script market has all but imploded as studios stopped bidding on them and agents stopped reading them.

“My agents reminded me that big, dumb ideas would win the day — the quality of writing doesn’t matter,” he says. “The solution is to keep blowing things up. Then write more action scenes and blow them up bigger.”

Fortunately, Richards is now working for HBO on a movie — a period drama in which nothing gets blown up. He also has interest from investors in another script he would like to direct.

While some of the writers I talked with, like Richards, Feirstein and Weinstock, have found ways to advance their careers, they, too, complain about the ever-mounting obstacles. There are repetitive and punishing auditions before teams of hyper-caffeinated development executives, plus demands for free outlines and treatments, followed by free rewrites and polishes not provided for in initial deals. The process is longer and the decisions slower. And those writers who try to beat the system by writing e-books face a baffling landscape of constantly changing dealmaking criteria and bogus revenue splits.

In short, writing, as Richards put it, is more a character flaw than an occupation. It’s not what practitioners choose to do. It’s what they have to do. But that still fails to justify the economic anomaly.

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  1. R. Paul Dhillon says:

    Ever since the film business has become a global juggernaut, there is also a flood of screenplay writers and that has overall devalued the hyped-up million-plus getting spec writer and their high concept projects! Also there are few specs that now can hit it out of the ball park in originality and mostly those still selling at the high end are genre fusion scripts! But there is also just too many script writers and it may be a supply-demand thing that has lowered the compensation for writers! I’m in Canada and here you have to be a writer-producer to jump start a project otherwise it’s just disheartening that your work will not see the light of day and forget about getting a decent payday if it is produced!

  2. Melody Lopez says:

    Helen, don’t be discouraged! Bug Sam- keep at it and maybe your dreams will come true! I for one have a special story I’ve been working on for YEARS. To me, the creative process of developing the story and putting it to paper…is the best part of the journey!!! Nothing is wasted as I learn to get my story to FADE OUT. Getting notes with some not knowing what to say because they don’t want to hurt my feelings and others who love it and cause me to figure they are lying — is all GOOD FUN!!!

    I am so much more concerned about having my story told then how much I make on it. As such, articles like this don’t sway me. I truly believe that a well written screenplay will sell itself and if writers strive for the kind of excellence that will yield results- then we’ll all see their names in the credits one day!!!

    I am an OPTIMIST…but mostly I’m a perfectionist who believes in honing the craft and getting it right on paper – cause its cheaper then trying to do reshoots and fix it in post production….

    • Frank W says:

      I posted this to the wrong person…

      Melody, my story is working on thirty years now. I haven’t given up (though original concepts I’ve come up with back in the day have now been done by others) and I just keep plugging along.

      • Melody Lopez says:

        I admire your tenacity! You got about 25 years jump start on me with the time vested! BUT I admire that so much about you! I am glad you keep plugging along!

        The late Blake Snyder, screenwriter and author of Save the Cat! would say “A well written screenplay will sell itself!” and he said “agents magically appear once you have a product worth selling… I abide by this and hope to make him proud some day!!!!

  3. Robert West says:

    I spent 3 years developing a show with a major management company who then sold it to HBO, who then, with the major management co., dragged their heels on it for another 2 years. I’m WGA, have been for 20 yrs. They’re both WGA signatories. They broke every rule in the book, but here’s the rub: my agents, though apologetic, didn’t care. My ent. atty., though apologetic, didn’t care. The famous management co. and HBO … didn’t care. And I have some cachet from a very popular, and now famous, movie I wrote the novel that it was all based on. And they still didn’t care. I have a young writer friend who isn’t WGA, but who is repped by a fine middle tier agency, who has been developing a script from treatment stage through to final screenplay for the last year with a major development co. underwritten by Disney. Hasn’t seen a dime. And never will unless Depp attaches himself. This would never have happened 10 yrs. ago. And where is the WGA in all of this: well, hiding their head in the sand, of course. It’s the new normal: abuse writers, and then abuse them some more, humiliate them, dangle carrots on sticks, cackle when they write and rewrite and rewrite for nothing, in hopes that chimerical, and proverbial, pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Sad to say it’s probably a fata morgana.

    • Frank W says:

      So when we last left this thread, I was oblivious to what a “fata morgana” was. I’m not even sure I had even finished your paragraph, but if I had read the phrase, I would have just assumed it was one of those “Big words” that was left out of my education. Yesterday rummaging through my library’s books for sale, I came across a book with that phrase as a title written by William Kotzwinkle. He wrote the novelization of ET that I thought was better than the movie.

    • Frank W says:

      Sorry Robert, I wrote my reply to Melody to your reply button.

      I’ve been hearing a lot of the same stuff from the practical effects guys. Being asked to work for next to nothing, “what do you have on the shelf?” I think the only way a writer can make it is to be a creator/producer, but after watching The Office finalé, you have to stand in line behind all the actors.

    • Frank W says:

      Melody, my story is working on thirty years now. I haven’t given up (though original concepts I’ve come up with back in the day have now been done by others) and I just keep plugging along.

  4. Helen says:

    So much for attempting this myself, I’ll never be able to manage it. I’ll just learn about it.

  5. Bugs Sam says:

    I have three projects I am working on at present. One, a superhero property, a TV series and a passion project about a burned out 20-something who ends up in the arctic mushing dogs….Every day each gets a prescribed amount of time and effort, and everyday I look at my meager savings and think, “what the hell is wrong with me?” And then I look out and see that any other prospect is just as dour and dim. I mean, I am not going to go back to school for a JD or PD, so what else would I do? Serve lattes and scones?

    This is it. This is what I do. So, anyone wanna buy a screenplay or TV pilot!?! :)

    Something has to give, and something needs to change. The cable arena has some positive signs for creative scribes, and the Internet is certainly beginning to become more and more viable, but damn, I just want to be on the lot, having fun hammering out rewrites while a director wearing leiderhosen and knee-high leather boots yells and rants.

  6. EK says:

    It’s a right brain/left brain thing:Distributors are business people focused on money while writers are creative folks focused on turning out reams of verbiage with no idea what it is or could be worth. Creativity comes at a price, but it’s not always monetary. Even an impostor would know that.

  7. avietar says:

    The best advice never changes: INVEST as much of what you make as you can.

    • Orlando says:

      Re: Bugs Sam and his desire to be on a lot doing rewrites…. This is something that Fox Writers Studio has got very right. Other studios should race to emulate this model, which provides the six writers who got in with a weekly paycheck to cover the rent while they enjoy building relationships and original ideas directly with the studio while rendering their services on existing projects. It’s a win win situation for everyone. Props to Fox for investing in original voices and giving them the chance to do what they do best – write, not endlessly hustle and fear foreclosure!

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