The Screenwriter's Quandary

By Levitt, Beverly | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The Screenwriter's Quandary


Levitt, Beverly, The World and I


Majors versus Independents

"BOFFO BLOCKBUSTER ACTIONEER!" "SIDE-SPLITTING COMEDY!"

"INTIMATE EXPLORATION OF FAMILIAL SACRIFICE." "NOVELISTIC, INTRICATE TALE OF MURDER, MYSTERY, AND INCEST."

While the first two headlines clamorously shout out Mainstream Hollywood Movie, the others defiantly proclaim the smaller picture, the art film, the quirky, idiosyncratic noncommercial tale Hollywood studios won't touch with a ten-foot fountain pen, even if it comes with a lifetime warranty and money-back guarantee. That there is such a vast divide presents screenwriters with a problem: Should they write, say, an insightful, elegant portrayal of a musical genius' nervous breakdown and triumphant recovery, or an action-adventure odyssey about aliens threatening to overthrow our government and annihilate life as we know it?

The former scenario is the gut-wrenching storyline of Shine, an independently produced picture picked up last year at the Sundance Film Festival by Fineline Features; the latter a megabuck blockbuster produced by 20th Century Fox, Independence Day. Shine went on to amass critical acclaim and coveted awards. Independence Day earned upward of $300 million and topped Variety's Film Box Office Report, making the studio heads happy executives indeed.

American filmmaking has had a two-tiered system since its inception. The studios long dominated the scene with glitzy star vehicles (though in their heyday in the thirties and forties, studios would make a full gamut of movies, from high-budget A pictures to lower-budget B and C flicks and shorts). Independent films would, if they were lucky, accompany studio films in a double feature or play at obscure art houses to small audiences. With the advent of film festivals, they were seen by more people and were frequently bought by major studios or distributors. In recent years, major distributors have picked up at festivals such as Sundance films that went on to receive critical acclaim and major awards. Among these are Horton Foote's Trip to Bountiful (1984, Island Pictures), Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1991, Miramax Films), and Allison Anders' Mi Vida Loca (1992, Sony Classics).

With the rise of the independents has come a change in the status of the screenwriter. In the thirties and forties, many great screenwriters were under exclusive contract to a studio, and were unable to write for independents or other studios except by special agreement. Today, most writers work "free lance," meaning they can either sell their work to anyone or make individual deals that give a studio the right of first refusal to all their work (they may set up the refused scripts with an independent producer or another studio). The contracts depend on the status of the writer and are tenaciously monitored by the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

Making movies outside the studio system is attractive to screenwriters who want to retain creative control and avoid submitting to the tight supervision imposed by studios. But with freedom comes lack of finances, and writers often find themselves not only writing, but producing and directing, draining their

own legal contracts, scouting locations, and trying to find the best possible actors for the lowest possible fees. Alternatively, a writer can bring his script to an independent producer (indieprod), but this can have creative negatives akin to the studio system and financial constrictions not unlike doing it all yourself.

For most cinematic scribes today, it isn't a Hobson's Choice whether to write "big" or "small." Each writer must search his soul and determine what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. The nature of the story will dictate whether it is "major" or "independent" material. Any screenwriter knows that the personal, intimate, soulful tale that he has in his heart and longs to explore on paper will inevitably be what tinsel town calls a hard sell. …

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