Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is the Original Screenplay slowly dying

There was an interesting article in the LA Times this week, all about how things have changed in the writing industry, basically saying that the original screenplay is almost dead. I know this much, the industry is changing again, like it did when sound came in, and color and finally the Movie Brats of the late 60's, when Easy Rider appeared out of nowhere and changed the movie industry forever.

I guess we can all blame it on Steven Spielberg, after all it was Jaws that used the wide release strategy and thus created the "blockbuster", movies that earned lots of money on that first week-end.

And when Entertainment Tonight started, they were the first to actually tell the average person how much money a movie made that first week-end.

But Jaws really wasn't the first movie to use that strategy, there were the Italian gladiator movies and Hercules, all would open big and hope to make a quick profit before audiences found out they weren't very good.

George Lucas followed with Star Wars, and then the sequels were born again. Sequels were always made in Hollywood, even back to the silent era, Chaplin for one, did basically the same movie over and over.

But in the late 70's, something else happened. Guys like Shane Black who wrote Lethal Weapon, would write spec scripts. Scripts not ordered from a studio. And these spec scripts resulted in big successful movies that also created sequels.

And the word got around and pretty soon there was a frenzy of spec scripts being bought for lots of money. Joe Eszterhas got S4 million for an idea he wrote on a napkin (the movie was a failure).

And that's also when film schools really pushed the idea of making movies and pretty soon not only was everyone in Hollywood writing screenplays, everyone in America was writing screenplays.

All you needed was a typewriter and then in the late 80's, a computer and you were a writer. Simple, huh?

But the one thing that everyone forgets is this; spec original scripts were never at the head of the list, except for that short frenzy period in the late 80's and 90's. By the time the aspiring screenwriters started, the big money was gone.

And the reason was simple. A lot of those original scripts never made money.

When I taught at UCLA extension I always told aspiring writers this; there are 5 kinds of movies, always was, always will be. And they are, in order of priority:

Movies based on books.
True Stories.
Sequels & Remakes.
Original screenplays.

Just check your local paper and see how many movies are original. Not very many. So things really haven't changed. Sort of.

What's changed is the selling of spec screenplays. When I came here in 1990, you could find an agent ready to work with you to slowly get to meet producers. Sometimes it took 2 or more agents. I had a good screenplay, Emperor of Mars, that got me into every studio and network in the city.

And it got me a lot of work. You could pitch an idea or two, and if they liked it, they would hire you to write it, or give you an assignment they had already.

But much of that is gone now. All anyone wants is a 1-liner because as one company said, "if you can't tell the story in one line, it's not high concept". Try pitching Avatar on that, "guy becomes alien and falls in love with another alien".

Doesn't sound like a great idea, right?

What's changed is this and you're not gonna like it; there's too many people. Simple as that. And not just for screenwriters, for everybody. Carpenters, factory workers, you name it, competition is fierce.

I guess I was here for the last of the "golden era" of the Brat Pack years, when my generation changed the old studio methods with directors like Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, Scorceses and writers like Robert Town, Akiva Goldman, Joe Eszterhas and of course the guru of all William Goldman.

Because now, it seems like a free-for-all. But if you really think about it, nothing has changed that much and in the sage words of William Goldman, "nobody knows anything".

One of the guys who brought us 140 TV channels said that when they developed this idea to widen TV, they figured it would spawn great television with niche audiences getting original programming.

Well, what happened was repeats of old TV shows and reality TV and every conceivable angle on Hitler, over and over again. And the cable guy said that instead of great original programming they got mediocrity.

But then we had My Mother the Car in the 60's.