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Agent Predicts End of Hollywood

by Anne Thompson
August 11, 2008 8:40 AM
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Nancy Nigrosh, a long-time lit agent-turned-talent agent at Innovative Artists Agency, has sent me a disturbing essay that reflects more than a strike-related industry downturn:

The Lone Writer
Does anyone dispute that the WGA and the de facto SAG strikes have had a devastating effect on an already eroding marketplace for Hollywood’s premiere entertainment products?

Thanks to these artists' unions, which I term the ‘growlers’ -- the onset of the end of the world as we know it in Hollywood, I would argue, has officially commenced.

For a recent Thompson column about Post-Studio Stress Disorder, I was asked to describe the lack of adaptation to the changing times on the part of producers. This glacial idea resonated with me. How can anyone be frozen in time when the glaciers have already melted?

Inspired by the question, I kept asking people: “Why are you all still dancing, even though you know?"

And they each sorta replied: "Well, the music's still playing...so..."

Well, maybe we should punk up the beat, celebrate the scary edge and the supremacy of hardcore individual creativity, and let it rip.

Pull up your latte and consider:

The Writers Guild Of America's 2007-8 strike was supposed to be about a bigger piece of the pie for the future distribution of a writer's produced work… the pie in the digital sky. But the real truth is that the actual day-to-day script development process has created the real strife, and historically led to the cyclical bloodletting every time the Guild’s contract with the buyer/employer gang known as the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, expires. If something doesn't fundamentally change, there will be more strikes in the future, as each contract expires, creating a negative cycle of meltdown Hollywood and its doting mama, California, can ill afford.

In Hollywood everyone (and I mean everyone) is 100% united in the belief screenwriters must be able to be voted off the island whenever someone--be it an executive, producer, director or star—deems medically necessary. Ergo the panicked cry: is there a doctor in the house?

Why do screenwriters routinely experience this extreme emotional low when every bookstore in America has shelves galore devoted to the craft of screenwriting as though it were a swashbuckling high? Writing a screenplay is akin to the fighter pilot cockpit, a cold war hero saving the free world, a skill that can lay bare the heart's innermost desires, candycoat the ordinariness of daily life, and create deeply satisfying entertainment rides chock full of verbal thrills and visual skills that blow moviegoers' collective lid off.

Yeah, right. Those who really know would describe the writing process as a bit more like Bright Eyes groaning: “Do you like to hurt?/ Then…hurt me!” Because the facts of screenwriting life are linked either to the purse being snatched away from you – or the fact that there is gainful employment in snatching someone else’s purse.

Novelists, playwrights and poets are not rewritten by other writers. Even journalists do the deed pretty much alone, with maybe an editor or two. But screenwriters not only routinely and eagerly replace each other, they are tactical in their competitive quest for credit, credit that is not only emotionally gratifying but financially existent. Without credit, future opportunity, immediate and contingent compensation, dissolve. All that hard work to get beyond base camp, undone. Back to square none. Back to the hustle. Back to waiting in the wrong long lines and sweaty struggle.

Who hasn’t gnashed teeth over the Notice of Participating Writers attached to a shooting script with the sickening list all of those fellow WGA members you marched with who worked on your finally produced screenplay? Or you’re the middle child hoping to finally shine, or the baby of the family who saved the day. The list routinely reaches back years and usually includes at least three to six or seven names. The most I ever saw was fifteen names for one production (this was back in the '80's). The financing entity - a studio or network or some corporate monster- then fills in the blank of credit recommendation based on their perception of the final result. But rarely does the writer with no chair when the music stops, agree. Here is where the disenfranchisement the Guild so fervently believes in, is really born.

To put it more clinically, the writers who do not receive credit lose their sense of professional self worth. They lose credibility and they lose money. They are not invited to the screening or any other film festivity. It is as though they never existed. Their contribution is expunged. The credited writers - and it typically is more than one writer who is awarded credit by the Guild - do not share the credit with grace. It is not like sharing a Nobel prize, or a campfire. Unless you hire your own publicist you’ll be sitting at the kiddie table and arguing politely with security at the star’s tent because here’s the other thing: nobody cares. Even the spotlight and the red carpet show the credited writer(s) no love.

Even if the credit is stand-alone, there are unexpressed whispers in the air. The writer is a slight embarrassment because how do you congratulate someone whose contribution is diluted and unclear? Who really wrote it? Aren’t they just someone who survived the process of elimination? What about the forgotten writer whom the Guild excluded whose scenes and character work possibly still persists? The most successful writers, the ones with the most credit, the ones who work the most, know this plight from every emotional angle, including the rarest terrain that is the most frozen of all Siberian tundra: award season. That's when a screenwriter watches all the other artists get pampered and showered in privelege in the campaign for gold while pitching their own pennies into the Olympian ring. Another uncomfortable fact of life: there is no financial bounce for a screenwriting award anyway.

Even with credit, financially the reward reduces when all contingent and residual compensation becomes equally divided among the other credited writers. The director, on the other hand, gets a check that is a 100% payment while WGA members share in mere fractions of the same type of royalty.

Why is it so ingrained that one person alone cannot write a producible screenplay? This idea perpetuates daily angst and untold frustration by writers toward the producers who hire and fire them. The idea of writer for re-hire came from a system abandoned long ago on a distant planet far away when writers were paid by the piece by the week in a factory. Clinging to that obsolescent notion has given birth to the inevitable havoc of Damoclean labor strikes that affect the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands if not more…you know, the rest of the city? Those who serve the industry, who clutter the roads with mindless traffic?

If Old Guard Hollywood would ever allow the possibility of a new Gesalt by eliminating the option for writers to be replaced and thereby make a clean slate start for the town's evolving digital purveyance, then maybe the constant conflict between the writer for hire and the contractors for their invaluable services might be avoided. Because the collateral damage – internal to our industry and the innocent civilians adjacent to it --is just too great.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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