The Craft & Trade: March 2005 Archives
There’s a debate in Washington swirling around the possible regulation of basic cable. Right now, the FCC regulates material that is broadcast over public airwaves. The idea here is that the airwaves are a public resource, so in exchange for use, broadcasters must submit to certain standards the public places upon the signals travelling through the air.
The FCC is, at least in theory, the agent of the public.
The current proposal, however, is to extend the FCC’s regulatory reach to include basic cable. Before we go any further, I must share with you the excellent definition of basic cable that is written into the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement.
The term “basic cable,” as distinguished from pay television or free television, refers to that type of exhibition which is commonly understood in the industry today to be basic cable exhibition.
Ain’t that adorable?
Anyway, basic cable, which includes your Comedy Centrals and CNN’s and so forth, is typically transmitted via privately owned cables. The pro-regulatory folks are saying that kids have the same access to basic cable as they do to broadcast networks, and therefore the FCC ought to regulate them as such. The anti-regulatory folks are saying that the FCC can only regulate signals moving through public space. Attempting to regulate signals moving through private space is censorship.
I happen to agree with that latter argument. However, I understand why many are calling for this. I sympathize. And I think that we, the creators of so much of our culture, are making a mistake by repeatedly villainizing the people and motivations behind such initiatives.
I didn’t always think that way. True, I’m a parent now, and that certainly broadened my perspective. Even before that, though, I had a small crisis of faith. It began with a man named Jimmy Pearsall.
I was 21 years old and fresh out of college…just another knuckleheaded kid who didn’t know anything about craft or creativity, butI had a job writing TV promos at an ad agency for 20 grand a year, so I was happy.
I smoked back then. So did Jimmy. He was in his 60’s. An artist. Happily gay, but lived alone. A recovering alcoholic who didn’t seem to get the point of the word “recovering”. His job was to draw images for insignificant ads promoting insignificant shows. But many years earlier, before the drinking got really bad, Jimmy had done some truly wonderful work.
Work like the greatest movie poster of all time. The linked site lists his credit below the poster, but that tiny bit of black ink the lower right-hand corner is his initials. JP. Look for them if you ever see the one-sheet in all its full-sized glory.
Jimmy was a genius, and it seemed only I appreciated it. The two of us became great friends. He was my smoking buddy during work hours, and I can only assume he was his own drinking buddy before and after work hours. That was 1992. Jimmy died in 1994. Cancer of the liver and lungs. Smoking and drinking. I visited him in the convalescent home just a few days before he died, and it was…ah well.
So why this sob story?
I remember talking with him about smoking and drinking once, and I asked him why he got started with it. And he said in his wonderfully suave Jimmy way, “Oh, Craig. It was the movies. It just looked so good.”
Did the movies kill Jimmy? Of course not. And yet, when I thought about why I started smoking, it seemed to me it was because I wanted to look cool. Of course, me smoking wasn’t cool at all. Why did I think smoking looked cool?
I admit it. It was the movies.
Shortly after, it occurred to me that the very purpose of Our Thing is to affect an audience. We want them to cry, to laugh, to question their values and their lives. We want them to taste a small bit of death, or to reexperience the feeling they had when they first fell in love. This is powerful stuff. If it weren’t, no one would be shelling out dough for it. Hell, Capra made films to help indoctrinate our troops heading off to World War II.
Culture has an influence.
And yet, the typical knee-jerk response of writers is “we’re not responsible!”
We’re not responsible for glamorizing teen sex, we’re not responsibile for making smoking look cool, we’re not responsible for anything. We’re artists. If the audience doesn’t get the joke, then it’s their fault. It’s their parents’ fault. It was a problem before we wrote it. Please shut up, but leave the money on the table, thanks.
Of course, by “We” I mean we right now. It’s all-too-easy for us to look backwards and condemn the writers before us who penned the minstrel shows, the homophobic characters, the light-hearted jokes about domestic violence, and the love scenes that started as rapes until the female character realized that she really did want it after all.
We of the Now, however, are protected entirely by our invisible Art Cloak, which shields us from even having to think about any responsibility to the audience.
Am I in favor of censorship? Of course not. Nor am I in favor of regulation where none need exist. What concerns me is that our culture has coarsened noticeably over the last fifty years, and we have been writing it. Sadly, we writers traditionally protest, in knee-jerk fashion, any proposals designed to help the audience regulate that coarsened culture…even if that regulation is entirely in the hands of the individual. “V-chip? Against! Warning labels on albums? Against! Ratings for televised programs? Against! Keep your laws off our words! If parents would only parent! Censorship!”
I wish it were not so.
Do we not owe some consideration for our audience, or is this another one of those slippery slopes to disaster? What role does responsibility play for those of us who manufacture culture not just for the United States, but the entire world?
Something that’s bugged me for quite some time …
There is a tendency to use “commercial” and “art” as if they are the measure of the same thing — as if there is a scale that looks like this:
The problem, of course, is that “art” is not the opposite of “commercial”; it’s not even the privative of “commercial.” The opposite and privative of “commercial” is “non-commercial.” We can debate endlessly what the opposite/privative of “art” is, but for now, let’s just go with the simple “not art.”
Which means the ol’ Commercial-Art scale actually looks like this:
We can probably — no, make that “certainly” — we can certainly debate endlessly the truth (or lack thereof) of the propositions “Commercial = Not Art” and “Art = Not Commercial.” In fact, I have seen such debates take place among screenwriters, I’ve participated in those debates, I stopped participating in those debates, and I guarantee that those debates are still going on.
But accepting either of those propositions as “True” requires accepting as “True” two corollary propositions that are obviously and demonstrably false:
IF a work is “Not Art,” THEN it is “Commercial.”
IF a work is “Not Commercial,” THEN it is “Art.”
In other words, if you create something that is not art, then a lot of people will pay you for it. If you create something for which no one wants to pay you … it’s art.
And that’s just silly.
Sure, it’s nice ego-balm in the event your screenplay does not sell to be able to say “This town just doesn’t care about art,” and it makes it a lot easier to dismiss any studio notes you don’t like as knee-jerk Philistinism in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, but the fact is:
If you write a screenplay and want someone to buy it, you are hoping it will be commercial — and the more commercial, the better.
If it does sell, then it is commercial.
If doesn’t sell, then it’s non-commercial.
If a movie is made, and people pay to see it, then it’s commercial.
If it is, and they don’t, then it’s not.
And none of that has any bearing on whether or not it’s “art.”
Coming soon: When did “indy/prod” go from being an economic statement to an aesthetic? And does the scale that goes:
— have any merit whatsoever any more?
Writers and their self-esteem. Is there any light at the end of that tunnel?
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think every screenwriter has an esteem problem. Nonetheless, the cult of victimology is humming along just fine. We’re “invisible”. “Forgotten”. Rewriters are “whores”. Studio executives trample our work. No one knows who we are. The faces of our greatest writers are unrecognizable to the public. We’re constantly being booted from our own works of authorship.
I’ll avoid the racist epithet, but you know what Lennon said about women and the world? Some would have you believe we’re the that of Hollywood.
Not me. I am not a victim, nor a whore. I do not define myself as abused, regardless of any abuse I may have suffered. I’m invisible to the public, but I don’t care. I’ve been booted from my own work of authorship, and I’m okay with that.
Am I a sociopath? No. I just don’t think “worst off” is a title worth pursuing. Besides, we have some stiff competition in our frantic race to the bottom. Actors. Directors. Agents. Producers.
You think we have it bad? Sit in a casting session for a few hours. Or spend years of your life clawing to get one of your unknown clients his first gig, only to have him turn around and ditch you for CAA. Direct a film, and then get locked out of the editing room…you know, the room where they’re chopping the crap out of the movie you shot.
Or how about this one? Be the president of a studio. Inherit a slate full of bombs. Do your damnedest to find and develop better material. Get fired because that slate of bombs was exactly as bad as you suspected, and then watch as your replacement takes credit for the movies you put into production.
Happens every day, folks. And yet, it’s the writers who seem to be complaining the loudest. Before the commenters run for the torches and pitchforks, I’ll readily agree that there’s plenty about the status of the writer in Hollywood that sucks. Even worse, it’s largely reparable.
Still, I’d like to think that one way out of this bind is to stop fighting with everyone else over the crumbs of esteem our industry occasionally disgorges. Any esteem worth a damn is self-generated rather than extracted through demands or shame.
Consider this: if you surveyed Americans and asked how many people knew who Ruben Studdard was, you’d get a number in the millions. If you asked how many knew who Scott Frank was, you’d get an answer in the thousands. And yet, Scott Frank has personally entertained far more people than Ruben Studdard ever will (and he’s done it far better, natch). I’d like to think that Scott Frank doesn’t give a crap if people know his name or his face. I’d like to think that Scott Frank’s self-image doesn’t come from his relative status to directors or producers or actors, but instead from his opinion of his own work. I’d like to think that Scott Frank doesn’t want Scott Frank to be famous; he wants his movies to be famous.
Does anyone honestly believe that writers like Scott suffer because they aren’t crying out for more respect, more attention, more validation? Is it this magical “esteem” that makes our work important and good…or have we, like so many Americans, flipped the causality here?
“Respect writers!” is a bugaboo. I didn’t become a screenwriter because I needed to fill an esteem void. I write because I want to entertain people. My sense of self-esteem comes from the knowledge that I do my best. It comes from supporting my family. It comes from my desire to learn and improve.
The last place it will ever come from is a studio, or an agent, or an actor or director. Doing things specifically to enhance our esteem is the weakest possible move. No one respects the beggar.
If we want to improve our standing in Hollywood, there’s really only one way to do it. Tomorrow, every writer wakes up and says and believes the following:
“I don’t care what anyone else thinks about me. I just care what they think about my writing.”
Just like that…esteem crisis solved. The agents will still fret over their clients, the directors will still worry that the producers will undermine them, the actors will still complain that they’re treated like pieces of meat, and the studio execs will forever be looking over their shoulder at the new kid who’s nipping at their heels.
But we’ll be calmly doing our job.
Of course, caring about your writing isn’t the same as writing well. Nor is caring about your writing ever going to change the fact that some readers have no taste. But hey, isn’t it always true that some of our best writing won’t get made? Didn’t we know this going in? Weren’t we aware that we couldn’t eliminate the existence of poor judgment and poorer treatment? The film industry is as predictable as weather, traffic, tumors and roulette—and I’m being charitable.
Still, we have an advantage. We are capable of creating without any antecedent work, without anyone else’s contributions. Ex scriptor. No one else in our business can make the same claim, but somehow we’re supposed to be the weak ones?
Let’s all sit shiva for a fair world that will respect us as writers simply because we write. We don’t need that crutch. We’re the strong ones.
It’s a common assumption that Our Thing doesn’t require our presence on the set of the films we write. Similarly, it’s a common assumption that most directors don’t want us there anyway.
I’m going to challenge those assumptions.
While it’s true that plenty of movies are produced without the writer present, I’d argue that it’s in our interest as the primary story technicians to be there—even if it’s only for the beginning of the day. That’s when the scenes are blocked. That’s when the actors are carefully examining their sides. That’s when the entirety of the multi-million dollar corporation known as The Production is suddenly focused like a laser on somewhere between one and three pages of the scripts we write.
And no one knows those one to three pages better than we.
However, we do not currently have a right to be on the set. One of the problems facing directors is that they can feel challenged or interfered with by someone else asserting authorship on the set, and the director’s near-complete authority is necessary for them to best do their job.
I’ll argue that authority on the set is not necessary for us to do our job. Nor is servility.
What’s necessary is a formal code of behavior—an etiquette—to help define our job on the set as well as assure directors that our presence will be neither disruptive nor redundant. Furthermore, any good code of setiquette should avoid stepping on certain landmines—the director’s right to ban anyone they’d like from the set, for instance. Nonetheless, I think directors would want us on the set if they felt their primary concerns were addressed formally and beforehand. I think it would be a rare director who wouldn’t want the option of a writer there to help take care of the myriad of issues that typically arise, unforeseen, on the day of shooting.
As always, I call upon you, intrepid writers, to comment on this list. Add to it, rip it apart, have at it. Furthermore, feel free to challenge my initial presumption. Should writers be on the set? Should it be an option…or part of our job description? Should a production all-services deal become the norm, rather than a maybe?
Remember, setiquette goes both ways…we ought to have obligations to the production, but the production ought to have obligations to us. Finally, I think this setiquette can only realistically apply if the writer is there to work. Visiting the set makes you a visitor; if you’re a visitor, you can expect to be treated like one.
Enough prologue. My first shot at Setiquette.
The currently employed screenwriter shall be prominently listed on and promptly receive all call sheets.
There shall be a Screenwriter’s Office in the production office and a Screenwriter’s Trailer when trailers are used for location shooting.
There shall be a seat for the screenwriter on set, preferably near the director’s seat, unless the director opts otherwise.
The screenwriter shall have full access to the set, unless the director opts otherwise.
The screenwriter shall not discuss any script, story, character or production issues with the cast unless the director grants specific permission.
The screenwriter shall not discuss any script, story, character or production issues with the crew unless the director grants specific permission.
The screenwriter shall make his expertise available to the director, and shall provide it at the director’s pleasure to the best of his ability.
The screenwriter shall not give “notes” to the director, unless the director opts otherwise.
The screenwriter shall be invited to screen all dailies with the director, unless the director opts otherwise, in which case a separate viewing of dailies will be made available to the screenwriter in a timely fashion.
The screenwriter will receive all crew gifts (jackets, etc.) and will be invited to all wrap parties.
Okay, fire away!