A few months ago, a producer sent me a short story she'd acquired the rights to. I was excited since this producer (well-respected and with a little money in the bank) had recently optioned a script of mine for a generous (and professionally accurate) fee. The short story definitely had some cool cinematic elements, but was a tough nut to crack since it jumped around in time and didn’t have a particularly strong through-line. After a couple of weeks of busting my hump, I submitted a pretty polished treatment and was soon on a conference call with the producer and her development person. They were duly impressed, but had a few questions (which I expected). By the end of the conversation, I had jotted down their concerns for future reference, but also felt genuinely optimistic that soon we’d all be in business together. That’s when the producer cheerfully suggested that I work on her list of suggestions and call them back in a week or so with a new pitch. In the meantime, they would be talking to other writers.
I was a little surprised. In the good old days of screenwriting (which, as I recall, were just a few short years ago) if the producer and studio, liked your take, they “bought” it and then you were “hired” to solve the problems. This was known as “development” -- or in some cases, “development hell.” What made development hell sort of tolerable was although your project was in creative limbo, you were at least being paid for the time it took to gradually fuck it up. Apparently those wonderful days are (for now) over.
In the last twelve months I’ve talked to more and more well-established creative people who are being asked to work for free. Working for free when you’re starting out sort of goes with the territory. Quite a few folks I know did under-the-table rewrites or a little ghost writing for big timers too busy to handle the landslide of work coming their way. It was just considered part of paying your dues. These days, the collapsing economy, combined with the hardball tactics being employed by the AMPTP against all the unions, have changed the rules of the game.
It’s not only writers who are feeling the pressure. A friend of mine who is a publicist was recently asked by a major agency to do three months of free work for one of their clients, just to see if she was “the right person for the job.” Across the board, producers, designers, casting directors, etc. are now being asked not just to “audition” for their jobs, but to do substantial amounts of time-consuming, expensive work in the hope that perhaps (maybe) there might be a paycheck at the end of the process. When I’m approached by young writers about how to get a foothold in the industry, I’ve lately been a little stumped about what to tell them. When I was starting out, there was a standard template and the big challenge was how to break into the well-established pecking order.
After the writers strike of ’07, all anybody could talk about was “New Media.” It was apparently a gold mine just waiting to be tapped! I was deluged with calls. “Let’s get a bunch of friends together and create a webisode show!” As fun as many of the ideas were, from a financial standpoint, it was the equivalent of saying “My uncle’s got a barn. Let’s put on a show!” The hope being that maybe some big producer would see the results and whisk us away to network Heaven. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in showcasing your talents and I think entrepreneurial thinking is a great thing. Although there have been a few success stories here and there, the problem with new media lies with where does the money come from and how do you make it back? For every webisode that manages to “monetize” itself, there are quite a few that wind up on somebody’s VISA card ; left to be paid off in installments for the next ten years. Plus there is the bigger problem of a young audience who don’t much want to pay for anything they view on the net. An executive friend of mine warned me to expect more of this kind of “free” thinking because the gargantuan success of on-line forums like Facebook. He warned that most major entertainment conglomerates are now looking for entertainment concepts where all the content is free. Yes, free.
According to an article from the all-knowing, all seeing Nikki Fink’s column, Marvel Comics is about to launch a particularly heinous “New Writer’s Program.” She quotes one source as saying that under the terms of the program before the writers are even allowed to come in and meet, they must sign a non-disclosure agreement and a 70-page, non-negotiable contract. Among other things, the contract gives Marvel ownership over “everything the writers create during the one year term of the deal, plus a first look and last refusal to any and all projects the writers have previously written or will write for 24 months in the future." I’d like to think that this is a joke, but given the ginormous popularity of comic book heroes as movie fodder, I suspect there are probably young scribes lined up out the door to take this crappy deal.
In the end, I suspect the folks at Marvel will wind up having to pay a few seasoned professionals a tidy sum to come in and clean up the mess. You can’t beat young writers for their enthusiasm and originality, but unfortunately screenwriting requires a great many skills; the most important one being the ability to create characters that an audience will embrace over the length of a two-hour movie. That task is a bit more complex than it looks at first glance. Qualities like courage, perseverance, sacrifice, regret, humility and redemption are tough to write about unless you have actually lived some version of them. Having kids, alimony payments, a bad back, a big mortgage and a less than satisfactory retirement account will definitely give you a certain perspective on how a character actually “lives” through life-threatening dangers and eventually emerges triumphantly.
These days, working in Hollywood is becoming more and more like the Wild West. Who the hell knows who’ll next be riding into town with guns blazing? I’m personally hoping for a few minor miracles. The first would be that the internet (like the film festival circuit) will be recognized as a training ground for new creatives and not their ultimate destination. Next, I hope that the studios will come to their senses regarding capping “star” salaries. Stars (in every field) deserve to make more than the rest of us, but the mega paydays of yesteryear need to be reconsidered if the rest of us are going to survive the current economic bronco ride. Finally, I hope that the corporate conglomerates who now own most of the major studios will finally tire of trying to churn out nothing but tent pole hits and sell off their entertainment divisions to the showmen (and women) who invented this business to begin with. I realize that the times (and economics) have changed, but if we could somehow turn this back into the “family business" it once was, then maybe things like “residuals” could again be thought of as a reasonable, humane way of maintaining the talent pool that sustains and refreshes this industry year after year. I might be kidding myself, but this is a business fueled by dreamers. Who knows? Maybe this one could come true some day -- soon!