Is the art of the screenwriter drowning in a sea of action blockbusters and diminishing budgets or will more writers follow in the wake of this year’s award winners, crafting screenplays with distinctive voices and sophisticated narratives? John Hazelton reports

Hollywood screenwriters are living in interesting times. As the studios trim development budgets and cut their production slates, fewer screenwriters are working. Most of those who are working, suggest their agents and managers, are doing more work for less pay.

Figures in the 2010 annual report of the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) show an 11% decline between 2006 — the last year before the 2007 writers’ strike — and 2009 in the number of feature-film writers’ reporting earnings, and a 2% decline over that period in total earnings. In the current climate, the fortunes of individual writers vary considerably.

“Studios either want to spend very little for the up-and-coming writer who has a great screenplay and a voice,” says one agent, “or spend a lot of money for the proven writer who has tremendous credits under his or her belt.” Those being squeezed out, the agent suggests, are mid-level writers competing in a shrinking pool of writing jobs, such as adaptations of material already set up at studios, rewrites of existing screenplays and pre-production script polishes.

Writers pitching fresh ideas, meanwhile, are having to do more to secure a studio’s commitment.

“You have to work harder to get a job,” says Miles Millar, whose credits with screenwriting partner Alfred Gough include I Am Number Four, The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and Spider-Man 2. “You have to walk in with a full pitch and present the entire movie from start to finish.”

Sweepstakes pitching

In the process of seeking studio work, writers are having to deal with new practices such as ‘sweepstakes pitching’, in which as many as a dozen writers are asked to pitch for the same assignment, and ‘one-step deals’, under which writers are paid for only a first draft rather than for a draft plus one or more rewrites.

‘You have to work harder to get a job. You’ve got to walk in with a full pitch and the entire movie from start to finish’

Miles Millar, screenwriter

The one-step deal trend “has had a huge economic impact on writers”, says Michael Sugar, who runs the management division of Los Angeles-based management and production company Anonymous Content. “It doesn’t necessarily mean [they] are making less money overall if their optional steps are exercised but it means they’re making less money guaranteed.”

Writers themselves complain in practice they often end up doing free additional work (in violation of WGA rules) under one-step deals, and that the deals tend to produce scripts whose originality is diluted each time a new writer reworks the material.

The difficult working conditions for writers appear to result partly from the recession, which, along with the DVD slowdown, has put studios in a newly frugal frame of mind, and partly from the 2007 writers’ strike.

While the 100-day strike certainly produced some gains for writers particularly in the area of payments for new-media exploitation, the script stockpiling which preceded it helped foster the one-step deal trend. And in the strike’s aftermath studios had less need for new scripts, leading to a 2008 dive in writers’ earnings.

More recently, the studios’ focus on branded, globally appealing tentpole films has arguably elevated the status of stars and directors while it has marginalised screenwriters more used to scripting adult-oriented thrillers and dramas.

“There’s a whole tier of writers who have never done [branded tentpoles] and will be struggling in this environment to find work,” suggests Millar.

Whether the status of the screenwriter in Hollywood has been permanently reduced is open to debate. Some writers point out that action blockbusters have just as much need for writing talent as adult dramas. And one agent says writers are now encouraged more than ever to visit sets, even if they are not being paid to write during production.

It is evident, however, the conditions that led to initiatives such as Columbia Pictures’ vaunted 1999 gross participation deal with a group of high-profile screenwriters — a deal which lapsed several years ago —have changed.

“Most people have forgotten how to work with writers,” argues Jim Kouf, who wrote features including Rush Hour and National Treasure before shifting his focus to television. “A lot of the give and take that we used to see doesn’t seem to be there anymore… Everyone’s afraid to spend money and nobody trusts writers to deliver so nobody wants to take a chance on anything more than a first step.”

‘Most people have forgotten how to work with writers’

Jim Kouf, screenwriter

The new studio practices, about which many screenwriters are concerned, were discussed last summer in a meeting between WGAW representatives and studio heads. The guild will not comment on the outcome of the meeting but there are indications the studios are softening their position on one-step deals at least.

Warner Bros has reportedly been moving away from such deals and other studios are said to be less insistent on the deals than they were in the 2007 strike’s immediate aftermath.

One-step deals, sweepstakes pitching and ‘pre-writes’ (work that writers are asked to do before being hired) are also mentioned in the “pattern of demands” WGA members approved in preparation for upcoming negotiations with producers over a new employment contract (the writers’ current contract expires on May 1).

The Oscar factor

Yet writers’ best hope for a status boost may lie in the critical praise and box-office success earned by this year’s best picture Oscar nominees.

With nine of the 10 nominated films being adult-oriented dramas, six of those having topped $80m at the domestic box office and five having original screenplays, writers and producers are predicting the nominations list may prompt the studios to pay more attention to projects with strong and original authorial voices.

Mike Medavoy, the Phoenix Pictures co-founder and former studio chief nominated as one of the three producers of best picture nominee Black Swan, says: “My take on it is that some of them already are. They’re certainly going to take note. The fact [Black Swan] cost $13m and is probably going to gross somewhere around $250m tells you there is a market out there.”

And that kind of recognition could confirm the start of what writers’ manager Michael Sugar, citing another recent adult-oriented success, sees as “a really good cycle for writers. The Town is an example of a film which three years ago would have been very difficult to make and now is often referred to in my conversations with studio executives as a prototype”.

“Studios run their numbers and it is important they do that,” Sugar adds. “But they are also being creative and taking creative chances again, which for a little while was not the case.”

The black list

Described as a ‘most liked’ rather than a ‘best of’ ranking, the Black List has become an important way for Hollywood producers and studios to find writing talent and for writers to get noticed. Each year since 2004, Franklin Leonard, now an executive at Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, has compiled the list based on votes from colleagues — more than 290 of them in 2010— in development, production and distribution. Each can name up to 10 favourite scripts for unproduced or unreleased films. Screenplays which have appeared on the list and been made into successful features include Lars And the Real Girl and Oscar-winner Juno. The full 2010 list (available at includes 76 screenplays, some of them already acquired by studios or independents, which collected five or more votes in the most recent survey. Below are the five with the most votes.

College Republicans by Wes Jones (49 votes). Prod co Anonymous Content

Jackie by Noah Oppenheim (47 votes). Prod cos Fox Searchlight, Protozoa Pictures

All You Need Is Kill by Dante Harper (45 votes). Prod cos Warner Bros, 3 Arts Entertainment, VIZ Productions

Safe House by David Guggenheim (43 votes). Prod cos Universal, Stuber Pictures, Madhouse Entertainment

Stoker by Wentworth Miller (39 votes). Prod cos Fox Searchlight, Scott Free Productions