×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Are Screenwriters Becoming Obsolete in Hollywood?

We have plunged into the season of back-to-back awards and acceptance speeches, when every winner reminds us that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor. In these recitations of all the collaborators, however, I’ve noticed that screenwriters are rarely if ever mentioned, which is ironic since the speeches usually are in need of a rewrite.

Such omissions have become increasingly apparent lately, since more and more films have either been written by the director or perhaps not written at all. I’m convinced that no director named Anderson has ever hired a writer. Further, “Birdman,” with all its frenetic energy, plays like it was created scene-by-scene by its hyper-caffeinated cast (the director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, takes screenplay credit along with three other scribes, including two friends).

Arguably, the visually arresting “Interstellar” would have been a far more satisfying film had a talented writer worked on its dialogue and plot (Chris Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, are listed as the writers). I admired “Boyhood,” but, again, it plays as if the actors, year after year, invented scenes as they slowly aged.

The obsolescence of the screenwriter also is apparent in the trend toward what some critics call the “post-plot” movie. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a prime example of a movie that offered great shtick and a wisecracking raccoon but no true narrative. “The movie encourages you to enjoy yourself even though you’re not sure what’s going on,” observed Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan (he’s a traditionalist, to be sure).

To the contemporary filmmaker-writer, panache and camera movement are more important than compelling dialogue. Author Stephen Farber (another traditionalist) reminded me of Billy Wilder’s declaration: “I like to believe that narrative movement can be achieved eloquently and elegantly without shooting from a hole in the ground, without hanging the camera from a chandelier and without the camera dolly dancing a polka.”

The argument about writers and writers’ credits dates back at least to Andrew Sarris’ pronouncements in the ’60s about “auteur” filmmaking. Sarris venerated directors like Alfred Hitchcock, who distrusted both writers and actors. Pauline Kael then came along to advance the cause of Sidney Lumet, who ranged from “Network” to “Serpico,” and who closely worked with prominent screenwriters.

The painful truth is that many of the films of Hollywood’s vintage years, despite their often pedestrian, studio-driven structure, were exceptionally well written in terms of plot and dialogue. I once took a week off and read my way through some old studio scripts crafted by the likes of Nunnally Johnson and Dalton Trumbo, who labored in the old studio writers buildings, and I was enormously impressed by their craftsmanship and richness of dialogue. I even read unproduced scripts written by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht — it was clear why they were never made, but they deserved to be published.

My late friend Roddy McDowell, a keen student of studio history, once advised me to read some screenplays he’d collected that had been developed by studio chiefs explicitly as starring vehicles for their favored mistresses. It was a unique collection — superbly written scripts by top screenwriters that were never made (the relationships usually blew up before the films got their greenlights).

I realize that good writing doesn’t necessarily create good filmmaking. It’s more important today to capture the “big scene” than the elegant moment between characters. Superheroes don’t have to talk pretty. Raccoons in an outer galaxy are not expected to be eloquent.

But I can see why there’s discussion in at least one agency to change the title “motion picture lit agent” simply to “lit agent.” That way, they can remove the movie stigma.

More Voices

  • Tom Hanks Mr Rogers A BEAUTIFUL

    Tom Hanks' Portrayal of Mister Rogers May Put Him Back in Oscar's 'Neighborhood'

    Sony recently hosted a SAG-AFTRA screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Marielle Heller-directed drama starring Matthew Rhys as a magazine writer who befriends Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. While the screening didn’t include a guild Q&A with cast or the film’s creative team, the audience was greeted with a video message from [...]

  • Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese,

    Martin Scorsese and 'The Irishman' Enter Oscar Race With World Premiere at NYFF

    Even with its three-hour run time and a short 28 days in theaters before it’s available on Netflix, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is likely to be a major contender at the Oscars. The 57th New York Film Festival opened on Friday night with the world premiere of the epic real-life mob drama. Scorsese and his [...]

  • Brad Pitt Once Upon a Time

    How Much Does Hitting the Awards Season Circuit Really Matter to Stars Like Brad Pitt?

    “Do you want an Oscar?” That’s the first question one top awards consultant asks any potential contender when they first start talking. Everyone is wondering how Brad Pitt would answer that question these days. He recently raised eyebrows and made headlines when he proclaimed that he would not be campaigning this awards season. “Oh, man. I’m [...]

  • Renee Zellweger'Judy' film premiere, Arrivals, Samuel

    'Judy's' L.A. Premiere: Renée Zellweger Takes Another Ruby Step Toward the Oscars

    Renée Zellweger continues to follow the yellow brick road to the Oscars. The Los Angeles premiere of Judy on Thursday night in Beverly Hills kept the Academy Award winner on track for a possible second win come February. “We’re just so happy we’re able to share it with you tonight,” Zellweger said to the crowd [...]

  • Barry Bill Hader

    Emmys 2019: Clear Favorites and Top Challengers for This Year's Winners (Column)

    If this felt like the longest, most expensive Emmy campaign in history, you might be right. For one thing, the 2019 Primetime Emmys will be held Sept. 22, which is the latest the ceremony has taken place since 2013. That also happened to be the last year of TV’s quaint, pre-streaming era, before outlets like [...]

  • Fleabag Succession Emmys

    Could 'Fleabag' and 'Succession' Be Spoilers on Emmy Night? (Column)

    At the onset, this year’s Emmy Awards felt a bit anticlimactic, as the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” appeared to have this year’s drama and comedy categories locked up before campaigning even began. But that’s how upsets happen: Just when we’re pretty confident about how things might go, a couple of wild [...]

  • Climate Mobilization

    Marshall Herskovitz: Why the Climate Crisis Needs Movie Marketing-Style Muscle

     I’ve lived inside the climate-communications conundrum for 20 years, working with scientists, academics and activists to find ways to convince Americans that something they couldn’t see or feel was nevertheless a looming catastrophe worth upending their lives to fight. Now the climate crisis is undeniable, and we are finally seeing the beginnings of concerted action. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content