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Wages of Fear

Exec missives take on literary life of their own

TO: All concerned

FROM: Creative group

We’re very excited about this seventh draft; the script is much closer to resembling the one we want to see. In the next pass, the hero’s arc could be better defined, his girlfriend’s emotional journey could be clarified, and we’d like to make the villain’s moment more satisfying. Also consider relocating the story from Paris to an existing L.A. location. Below are some ideas.

Huh?

If the above paragraph drove you crazy, it’s probably because you’ve been at the receiving end of this kind of nonsensical vagueness more than once.

Story notes like these — usually four to five pages long, going through the script character by character — are how studios and producers most often communicate with writers and directors.

These documents demand far too much of any Hollywood exec’s time, and consume it entirely if you’re the poor sucker actually writing them. Agents fight you every inch of the way on executing them (because it means more work for their clients). And increasingly, they are a waste of time because many intended recipients have stopped reading and following them.

How did things ever get so bad?

“If the script looks the same leaving your office as when it came in, what do they need you for?” one top screenwriter says in describing the note writer’s need to inflict development on a script.

To truly appreciate the kudzu-like spread of notes into every crevice of the creative community, it’s worth briefly examining why the concept was hatched.

Rewind to the ’70s, when filmmakers drove the moviemaking agenda — and notes were nowhere to be seen.

This all changed in the early ’80s, when Michael Eisner and Barry Diller ruled Paramount Pictures and decided to apply to their fast-growing slate a notes format they knew and understood from TV. From now on, execs were setting the high-concept agenda and had the system to prove it.

Enter Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was tapped to put the system into practice. Within months, the bespectacled exec had a whole crew of “creative executives” — then still an unknown and untested job description — slaving through notes for such movies as “Airplane!” and “Beverly Hills Cop.”

His first recruits included Ricardo Mestres, David Kirkpatrick, the late Dawn Steel, Larry Mark, Ed McDonnell, Richard Fischoff and Larry Wilson.

One alum described a boot camp that ground down two dozen execs over a two-year period: “There were people in the fetal position on the floor because they just couldn’t handle it.

“There must have been 10 sets of notes per movie,” the survivor elaborated, “and everybody used the same typewriter.”

With this kind of ferocity and purpose, how did notes become the kind of bland incantation so hated today?

Fast-forward to 1999.

One problem is that notes have taken on a much more codified importance of late: Far from being a creative advisory, observers gripe that notes have emerged as a de facto legal document to be haggled over endlessly by agents probing for a way to get their client to do as little work as possible.

To this end, the critics say, agents use an overly zealous set of notes as “proof that you have commenced my client on a much bigger step than we negotiated.” Producers, always eager to pretend it’s “just a quick polish,” try to argue the opposite. Neither is ever completely true.

“The agent has to have a good understanding of the project, but should not get so far into it that he’s now an extra development person in the process,” one top agent said, admitting that this, of course, is exactly what happens all the time.

I won’t get too far into how a colleague and I once had to write a scene-by-scene, 30-page set of notes complete with dialogue to spoon-feed a $400,000 writer who still smirked at us and offered no solutions of his own. But trust me, getting us to hire him and then have us do his job was a brilliant piece of agenting.

Another problem with notes is their intended facelessness.

What, for instance, is a poor writer or director supposed to do with a document that is so bureaucratic, so ass-covering its cover page is a memo from “creative” to “file”?

Even more perplexing, how does anyone interpret and put into practice terms like “Make the hero more proactive,” “Raise the stakes,” or “We’d like to see a more satisfying third act”? I’m sure we all would. But clue us in.

Several creative recipients of notes have tried to find one responsible person to supply the answers, only to find the origin of the document as opaque as a bottomless pool.

Why? For the same reason anyone in a creative meeting precedes a creative suggestion with, “OK, this is the stupid version, but …” Nobody wants to be the sole originator of any idea, especially on paper.

“There was a whole movement to depersonalize the notes process,” said one ex-studio exec, describing early origins in which junior execs wrote the notes and added a letter from the senior exec endorsing them to the director, but that gave the young guns too much credit. Then they made the notes for the senior exec, who often got caught not having actually read them.

They eventually settled on the now-familiar diplomatic format, where one nameless “team” speaks to another, making the creative process as antiseptic as possible.

Evolved execs do the only logical thing to combat the backlash:

“We write them like ‘bullet points’ now and have a meeting,” one exec said, explaining that she only does her own notes when it’s a project that’s going to happen; everything else is pushed off on the story department.

A producer agrees, describing how the process “is much more of a dialogue now.”

“A lot of filmmakers actually compliment us on our notes,” said one studio head. “The notion that everyone feels negative about them is just not true.” He added, however, that notes have become shorter and more to the point. “We can be a little blunter,” the topper concluded.

Despite this progress, notes still have few fans.

And a radical chic is developing as a result: Many up-and-coming executives brag that they have others do their notes, since their currency as a serious document has rapidly diminished. Having a smart lunch is often better for your career than slaving away in a dark room, even if the writer likes you — and what’s he gonna do for you, anyway?

The folks actually writing the notes, attempting to sandwich all the random — often conflicting — thoughts into a five-page document always will get shafted.

They will have to do notes before the creative meeting, observe how nobody reads them, then have to rework them after the meeting — a complete waste of everyone’s time.

They will continue to pull all-nighters with bad takeout food, trapped in a system that needs notes like it needs another “Heaven’s Gate,” but keeps manufacturing them because it sees no better alternative.

What this boils down to is that in just 20 years, billion-dollar companies no longer rely on the filmmakers to set the creative agenda. Instead, they package a product they aim to control using underpaid twentysomethings to be the first to articulate a creative thought on a high-end project. Sure, the brass reads through the notes — some of them even micro-manage the process — but the volume of projects is so enormous the notes instrument itself is here to stay.

A suggestion how to make the process work better for the note writers?

Risk having an opinion. Your own, that is.

It sounds radical, but even if your bosses think you did a great job on the notes by being careful, the screenwriter will still throw them in the trash and call up her agent. And then you will have to do the only thing worse than writing notes: Rewriting them.

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