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A Screenwriter's Dilemma As Film Work Falls For Second Year In A Row...

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act July 2, 2012 at 5:40PM

Interesting and worth noting shift happening here... although it's one that we've addressed in past years; specifically, a report released today from the Writers Guild of America West, which states that screenwriting jobs and wages in Hollywood declined for a second straight year, as major film studios continue to pullback from new productions.
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Interesting and worth noting shift happening here... although it's one that we've addressed in past years; specifically, a report released today from the Writers Guild of America West, which states that screenwriting jobs and wages in Hollywood declined for a second straight year, as major film studios continue to pullback from new productions.

The highlights of the report, courtesy of the LA Times:

- Employment fell 8% for screenwriters in 2011, compared with a year earlier.

- Total earnings were down 12.6% from the prior year.

- Over the last two years, 15% fewer writers worked in film, earning about 20% less in the aggregate.

- Feature film residuals dropped 10%, led by dramatic declines in receipts writers collected from DVD and Blu-ray disc sales.

- Earnings from home entertainment fell 23.9% in 2011, compared with the prior year.

And on and on...

However, on the upside:

- Digital distribution by such online services as Netflix Inc.and Amazon.com was a bright spot for film, with fees paid to writers for new-media uses nearly tripling from 2010 to 2011.

- Total television employment grew slightly last year to 3,320 writers, even though total earnings fell nearly 1% to $559.2 million.

- Residuals paid for the reuse of programs in foreign television markets grew a robust 60% in 2011, compared with the year earlier.

- The steady growth in programming for cable TV drove residuals to an all-time high of $24.73 million in 2011.

So, in summary, things don't look too good for writers working in film, but the picture seems rosier for writers working in TV; and I guess that makes sense. I think most of us agree that some of the more exciting, risk-taking programming is happening on TV these days (especially on cable), and not at the theater, where it's one remake/reboot/sequel/prequel/novel adaptations/comic book adaptation/game adaptation/TV series adaptation/Stage play or musical adaptation, after another. I pity the screenwriter with the original script - especially if you're telling stories about non-white people.

And it'll likely only get worse over time, until what feels like a bubble eventually bursts, or there's some kind of shift, the current cycle ends, and we begin a new one, with new emphases. 

I recall THIS write-up on Slate asking who the most adapted authors are in cinema, penned by Forrest Wickman. In it, he lists the top 25 authors who's works, as he's determined, are the most adapted.

His post got me thinking of an old conversation we had on this website in 2009, which I'm reintroducing for those who weren't readers of the site waaaay back then, and for the sake of the topic of this post, asking whether screenwriters should maybe consider penning novels.

But first, here's Mr Wickman's working list of the top 25 most film-adapted authors, and the number of times their works have been adapted, using IMDB as his source: 1. William Shakespeare (831); 2. Anton Chekhov (320); 3. Charles Dickens (300); 4. Edgar Allan Poe (240); 5. Robert Louis Stevenson (225); 6. Arthur Conan Doyle (220); 7. Hans Christian Andersen (217); 8. The Brothers Grimm (212); 9. Molière (208); 10. O. Henry (201); 11. Oscar Wilde (181); 12. Victor Hugo (150); 13. Jules Verne (143); 14. Stephen King (127); 15. Agatha Christie (126); 16. L. Frank Baum (124); 17. Mark Twain (121); 18. Cervantes (101); 19. H.P. Lovecraft (99); 20. J.M. Barrie (93); 21. Ian Fleming (88); 22. H.G. Wells (85); 23. Rudyard Kipling (78); 24. Tennessee Williams (74); 25. Stan Lee (73).

That Shakespeare's name is at the top of the list is absolutely no surprise! You'll also note the absence of, shall we say, color, in the above list. But that shouldn't be a surprise either.

We recently had discussions on this site about books by black authors we'd like to see adapted, as well as identified trends in books by black authors that have been adapted.

But, to get back to the connection to this post, addressing the "invisible" original screenwriter's dilemma. Essentially, I suggested that, if you're a writer interested in making a living penning original screenplays, you may want to instead consider writing novels.

A scan of any box office chart will show that there are actually very few of what I would call *original* stories in films in circulation. Most are sequels, or prequels, or they are based on old TV shows, or remakes of old movies, remakes of foreign titles, or they are based on comic books/graphic novels, or titles that are adaptations of books, etc, etc, etc...

And, I'd say that the task of writing a screenplay based on any of the previous categories I just named, often goes to writers already in the industry, usually with some kind of a rep, leaving out the hopeful newcomer.

So, what's a writer like you to do?

Hollywood developers love book adaptations. It's obvious! In fact, some of the most revered, and financially successful films were first in literary form before making the transition to celluloid - The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, Schindler's List, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Lord Of The Rings, The Dark Knight, Spiderman, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, The Bourne movies, Fight Club, Silence Of The Lambs, A Clockwork Orange, and on and on and on and on... There are countless numbers of them - the Twilight franchise, Hunger Games, and so on. 

I don't think a day goes by when a book option isn't announced.

As I thought about all this, I remembered reading an article some years ago in which Steven Spielberg actually encouraged writers to pursue careers as novelists, instead of screenwriters; stating that, at the time, his Dreamworks office was littered with stacks of novels he mined for source material, as he expressed his respect for them, over the original screenplay. I couldn't find the article on the web - it may have even been an audio/video interview - but all you have to do is take a look at the man's resume, and you'll find it chock-full of literary adaptations.

And practically all of Stanley Kubrick's films, except his debut, were adaptations of novels or novellas - even his last work, Eyes Wide Shut, an under-rated work that sharply divided critics.

Similarly, quite a few more of our most notable directors also have resumes that resemble Spielberg's, in terms of a mix of original screenplays versus adaptations of books.

SO... in light of today's news about falling work for screenwriters in general, maybe you should seriously consider putting Final Draft away, and instead get a copy of Word, and think about writings novels, or novellas, or even graphic novels/comic books... good ones of course; and, in the current climate, in which Hollywood seems to have gone adaptation-crazy (nothing is off limits apparently), willfully shunning original ideas, assuming your work gets published somewhere, somehow, by somebody, you might actually have a better shot at seeing your work acquired outright, or produced, than if you wrote an original screenplay!

Sounds ridiculous, and maybe it is. I'm being partly facetious. But, it doesn't look very good for screenwriters right now, especially if you're trying to break into the business. Talent alone likely won't cut it. 


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