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.