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Screenwriting in Hollywood: A Modest Proposal

Photo of Nancy Nigrosh By Nancy Nigrosh | Thompson on Hollywood October 2, 2008 at 8:29AM

Call Nancy Nigrosh a recovering agent. After 25 years as a talent agent repping writers and directors for film and television, she left her last gig at Innovative Artists. Freed from the shackles of agenting, she wrote what she calls her Parting Shot#1. If she's right, Hollywood's days of labor unrest are not over.
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Nancy Nigrosh
Nancy Nigrosh

Call Nancy Nigrosh a recovering agent. After 25 years as a talent agent repping writers and directors for film and television, she left her last gig at Innovative Artists. Freed from the shackles of agenting, she wrote what she calls her Parting Shot#1. If she's right, Hollywood's days of labor unrest are not over.

The Lone Screenwriter:

It's time to take one last look back at the two and a half decades I spent as an agent. Of all the questions I've had over the years, there's one that most burned and bothered me:

Why is it so ingrained in Hollywood that one person alone cannot write a producible screenplay?

The Writer's 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 based on writer elimination has created the real strife. Historically this practice has 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.

Novelists, playwrights and poets are not rewritten by other writers. Even journalists do the deed pretty much alone. 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. Meaning - what do you tell your family, friends, former classmates, neighbors, and people you've yet to meet - that you did work on something glamorous for possibly years even, but in the end, your name didn't scroll by?

And the other question that will not leave your mind is the calculation of cash you didn't get and residuals you will never see.

This belief and its subsequent practice of multiple screen authorship is a unifying principle that not only does not serve its community of believers, but actually endangers its members from achieving prosperity in a scarce economy.

The idea of writer for re-hire came from a system abandoned long ago at a time when writers were paid by the piece by the week in a factory for teaming mass consumption. Movies were the only game in town, and the workhorses were kept fresh. Getting firedoften meant relief, even deliverance. But with the new dawn, comes reality. Fired means fired.

Why do screenwriters routinely experience this extreme emotional low when every book store in America has shelves galore devoted to the craft of screenwriting as though it were solely a swashbuckling high? Being a screenwriter is believed to be akin to the fighter pilot in his cockpit, a cold war hero saving the free world. Nothing less than orgasmic‚ right? Like a rock guitar god, right?

This article is related to: Hollywood, Stuck In Love, screenplay), Nancy Nigrosh


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.