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

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by Tambay A. Obenson
July 2, 2012 5:40 PM
17 Comments
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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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17 Comments

  • Nemesis | July 16, 2012 3:59 AMReply

    Here's a post from Go Into The Story (on The Black List website) dated yesterday, 15 July, entitled "Reader Question: Why has the spec script market been so strong?" Perhaps "stronger" might have been more appropriate as the figures aren't exactly high. However, it does show that there's still hope for some... well, probably about as much hope as new author writing a best-seller novel that will get's Hollywood's attention. http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2012/07/reader-question-why-has-the-spec-script-market-been-so-strong.html

  • Justin Kownacki | July 5, 2012 5:35 PMReply

    Hollywood is also making fewer movies than it used to, which naturally skews the numbers. And since most of its films are franchises and sequels, it tends to call back the screenwriters who've already worked on those properties. Hence, it's doubly hard for a newbie to break in -- fewer original films are being made, and fewer original voices are needed.

  • Z | July 3, 2012 11:55 PMReply

    If there's anything as conducive to drink than the lack of women in Hollywood power, it's the lack of people of color.

    White men can't jump, but they sure as hell can pump out endless crap onto the silver screen. We need diversity where the power is _first_, it's a top-down process, always will be.

    And that is a fight won by earnest, intensely driven writers and film-makers ignoring doom and gloom prophecies like this, and going on to break ceilings and be pioneers.

    As for writing novels, I recommend a recent podcast by NPR/On The Media on the state of book publishing right now. Listen to it, then come back to me. Dare you to say again, we should be writing novels!

  • Daniel Delago | July 3, 2012 6:20 AMReply

    It was Lester Bangs in 'Almost Famous' who said, "Be honest, and unmerciful." I think screenwriting has become an obsession in our culture to find that elusive American Dream. As aspiring writers, getting a script optioned is instant validation of one's worth in society BUT if you pay attention to the actual numbers; it's disheartening. I suggest following the Scroggins Report - only 132 spec scripts sold in 2011. ONLY 132! Tens of thousands of scripts are submitted to agencies each year.

    Those who really want it will find a way to bust through the glass ceiling. The article explains succinctly there is more than one way to skin a cat.

  • James Madison | July 3, 2012 2:53 AMReply

    Great post!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | July 2, 2012 9:19 PMReply

    "Non Serviam." When in doubt ask, what would Melvin Van Peebles do?

  • Donella | July 2, 2012 7:19 PMReply

    Great post, Tambay! Good advice for the writer. Stephen Spielberg gave Peter Benchley quite a run for the money with Jaws.

  • FilmGuy | July 2, 2012 6:31 PMReply

    And yet scripts do sell. Sites like 'Go Into the Story' track every major studio sale that happens and it reports that spec script sales are up. I'm not saying you shouldn't tell it how you see, but I'd say that this type of news, however informative, is poison to an already downtrodden people. Let's try to curb the negative reports and continue with the positive things to keep the people motivated and working.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | July 2, 2012 9:22 PM

    Spec scripts may not sell like they used to, but they can still get a writer noticed -- and sometimes that's all that's needed. I'd rather wedge my foot in the door than blow out my knee trying to kick it in. Also, the indie route is ALWAYS an option. Reign in hell and produce something on your own -- with help, of course -- that will make them see you. MAKE THEM SEE YOU!!!

  • Nemesis | July 2, 2012 7:32 PM

    True, I read GITS on a regular basis, and it tells a somewhat different story. Corey Mandell's site is also a good read for aspiring screenwriters. Here at two links from his site, both of which touch on being a "real writer" as opposed to one who jut follows formula and trends, and what agents and managers are looking for in today's market place. http://coreymandell.net/blog/screenwriting-advice/the-life-of-a-professional-writer-breaking-in/ and http://coreymandell.net/blog/screenwriting-advice/are-you-a-real-writer/.

  • Luce | July 2, 2012 6:29 PMReply

    Right at the start, I would like to apologise for my english. But I was excited by what was written and I want to throw something out. A book idea that could be turned into a movie : "Kindred" by Octavia E. Butler. It's Sci-Fi/Fantasy but it could be made as a low budget, I think. No need for 3D or computer generated action. The heroine travels through time after a moment of dizziness. And we are in a period of time where anything about slavery seems "in". My reading of miss Butler's work is really recent and I'm hooked. She even wrote a vampire book : "Fledgling" and it's a fun read. She reinvented the genre a little.

  • Luce | July 2, 2012 8:17 PM

    @Maurice Emel - Oups ! I made a google search and found that S&A made a piece on it like Tambay said here. I don't know much about the industry, except what I can found on imdb, how long does it take for a studio to give their go on an optioned movie ?

  • maurice emel | July 2, 2012 7:52 PM

    from what I know, all of Butlers work are currently held in option by Dreamworks, if her stuff ever comes to the screen its going thru them 1st. and probably with an established writer who's already known (likely black) like McGruder, Lee, John Ridley... ummmm, thats prob it, unless they take a risk on Ava DuVarney, she's pretty hot right now.

  • toexplain | July 2, 2012 7:28 PM

    Read an adaptation of Kindred a few years back. It was a good adaptation. People just won't make it.

  • Donella | July 2, 2012 7:18 PM

    Second!

  • the devil | July 2, 2012 6:05 PMReply

    Touche, monsieur Tambay. with the kind of loot at stake, we're not too interested in original ideas here in hollywood. they cost too much to promote and aren't as exploitative as what my boys and 'em can churn out by the dozens in no time. we'll make transformers 4 and madea 8 anyday over indie garbage like "beasts of the southern africa" or what have you. original ideas = total waste of a Big Pimp's time. Heil Capitalism!!!

  • Said in Los Angeles | July 2, 2012 5:51 PMReply

    A very good read... I just completing the science-fiction/thriller novel B.E.A.N Police written by Nigerian writer Tope Oluwole. I find that there are many novels that for some reason the agent, publisher, or the writer feels should only be optioned/adapted by a big studio or production company and are depriving the audience of fresh and thought-provoking cinema...

    B.E.A.N Police begins filming in winter 2013...

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