As I look on the works of Hollywood, (ye mighty and despair), I can’t help but weep, and I can’t help but laugh.
Because from where I sit at my ergonomic standing desk, screenwriting appears to be simultaneously dying, yet thriving.
Studios are no longer in the business of making original motion pictures
If you’re like me, peering out at the ruins of what was once a cultural juggernaut, blending the highest art and the basest commerce for over a century, dominating the world in sound and vision, wonder and spectacle, head and heart, you perhaps notice that the vast majority of movies this once great factory seems to be manufacturing these days? They’re movies they’ve already made. Or are “intellectual properties” with “built-in” audiences.
Spidermans, Supermans, Batmans, Vacations, Mans From Uncles, Commandos, Avengerses, Pirateseswrit of The Caribbeanses, Hobittses, Footlooses, the list goes on.
Or, if the films are original, they’re barely so: films with the same epic, earth-shattering CGI-soaked stakes, films so ass-hurtingly formulaic and trope-concept-heavy that they’re hardly distinguishable (in content and on the bus stop posters) from the same Lite-Beer-Passing-As-Cinema the monkeyspanking studio suits wheeled out into the comic-cons and multiplexes not six months previous.
And, I’ll bet, that if you and I were betting men and women, we wouldn’t be putting any of our chits on original spec scripts getting made. Not even if said specs were sprung from the pens of established writers. No suh. Not in this tentpole / grab-the-money / avoid-all-risk-and-art-and-everything-that’s-always-made-cinema-great environment.
Hell, we non-establishment screenwriters wouldn’t even have a chance to jump onto one of these tentpole superhero -franchisemovies if we wanted to, as the jobs are all, natch, going to the established writers (Who probably need to eat, yes, but who, (and I’m giving them credit here) at the same time, I’m guessing probably aren’t crazy about the reboot/remake craze.)
So what’s an aspiring original screenwriter to do? How does someone who writes original, solid material get her material produced, or even seen?
To me, I, the Robert Frost of the path of least resistance, I, the man who solves a Rubik’s Cube by taking it apart and putting it back together, I, the man who’s never leapt at the chance to vote with my machete on how best to untie a Gordian knot, the answer is simple:
Yes, you read correctly. F*ck cinema.
Motion pictures have always been the wide, magical realm of the moguls, the powerful, the moneymakers.
But now it’s not a realm. It’s a Roman bacchanal.
It’s a cartel of corporate megastudio monoliths, steered by men and women in Armani suits, wearing MBA’s around their necks like festival badges. In one hand, a Blackberry with Wall Street on speed-dial. In the other, a twisty, stained dagger, stabbed fitfully into the back of everything good and right and illuminating and, well, entertaining, about filmed entertainment.
So how does a screenwriter who wants to make a living go about adopting a “F*ck cinema” worldview? Easy. Just put the studios and their entire incestuous corporate orgy of remakes and reboots completely out of your mind and out of your battle plan. The shop is closed. Game over. The official mantra: if you don’t own Batman, they’re not interested in talking to you.
Movies Need Franchises, Television Needs Screenwriters
But ah… Television. Or what I’ll call television. What I mean specifically is “non-network television.”
And television is alive and well in the second decade of the 21st century. Quite alive and well, thank you.
We lucky screenwriters and the rest of the media-consuming world find ourselves in a drastically fertile era of narrative entertainment. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Now — and the list rambles on — they’re making it easier and easier to cut the cord, AKA stick a fat middle finger in the all-seeing, monopolistic eye of Sauron called Big Cable.
The result has been nothing short of a home entertainment revolution. Or as I like to call it “Big Time Living Room Boom Boom Fun Fun.” (My wife disagrees with the moniker, but the moniker, and the HD projector and 8′ screen, are staying.)
Bottom line, the jury is in:
The new normal is a gaggle of channels and outlets and platforms, all of which need a gaggle of shows to fill the space. And that gaggle of shows translates to a gaggle of scripts needed to produce those shows, which in turn means a gaggle of screenwriters is needed to write the scripts.
And I have to gaggle quietly to myself, because I know, based on watching a mere 1000+ hours of shows — shows like Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos, The Wire, TrueBlood, Halt and Catch Fire, Louie, Downton Abbey, Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, et cetera — I know that all of those shows required not only an army of screenwriters, old and new, but that they and said screenwriters also took a monumental amount of risk.
To put it simply:
The new television loves, seeks, embraces, risk.
The new movies love, seek, embrace, visually-oriented CGI franchise pabulum.
The new television needs writers, needs fresh blood, and is constantly churning out new material.
The new movies need established writers to do their bidding on franchise films.
The new television is made up of an exploding amount of new channels and platforms, ranging from corporate to DIY.
The new movies are made up of a diminishing number of monopolistic studios in ever-increasing cahoots with a diminishing number of monopolistic cable companies (what are there, 5 total left?), as well as a conglomeration of theater exhibitors who are increasingly reliant on revenue from commercials in front of the film and who don’t even ensure a dark, quiet environment in which to view the films any longer, as $10/hr ushers are too expensive and lights need to stay on because, well, lawsuits.
For this screenwriter? It’s goodbye to the idea of ever writing a studio film. Sure, I’ll keep writing independent features, but the me that wanted to see my name on a Paramount film someday? That me is in a ditch somewhere, with an iPad, watching Game of Thrones on HBO Now.