Screenwriters are looking to change the way they are treated by the industry - and win more recognition. As the UK's International Screenwriters' Festival (July 3-6) opens, John Hazelton explores the writers' lot.
It's in the zeitgeist that the writers' lot must be improved in order for movies to get better.' So says Hollywood screenwriter Robin Swicord (Memoirs Of A Geisha), echoing the sentiments of writers on both sides of the Atlantic who are trying to change the way they fit into the movie-making equation.
Among the initiatives that have so far emerged from the zeitgeist are the European Screenwriters' Manifesto, unveiled at the Berlin International Film Festival by the Federation of Scriptwriters in Europe (FSE), and two US ventures: writer-producer John Wells' Writers' Co-Op - of which Swicord is a founding member - and 1.3.9, another new Los Angeles-based writers' collective.
Scriptwriters' push for a more active role is certain to be discussed at this week's International Screenwriters' Festival in Cheltenham, UK (July 3-6). And it will also be part of the backdrop in a few weeks' time when Writers Guild of America negotiators begin talks about a new contract with the Hollywood studios.
The key thing writers are seeking is recognition. The Screenwriters' Manifesto calls for the writer to be recognised as 'an author' of a film and asserts that indiscriminate use of the possessory credit is 'unacceptable'.
Mexican writer and Manifesto supporter Guillermo Arriaga says he is against a possessory credit for anyone. If authorship of a film has to be assigned, he suggests, 'let's share it in a more balanced way.'
Arriaga confirms that recognition of the writer's role was the cause of tension between himself and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, with whom he collaborated on Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. 'These kinds of differences affect most writer-director relationships,' Arriaga says.
More recognition might also mean more remuneration, though writers involved in the recent initiatives insist better pay is not their primary goal.
The real goal, they say, is to change a system that often, especially in the US, has scripts being developed by executives - and then re-written, perhaps several times over - and writers being largely shut out of the process once production begins.
The two new Hollywood ventures, for example, will have writers developing their work with other writers, giving approval for re-writes, and taking an active role in the production process.
Part of the idea of the Writers' Co-Op is to 'institutionalise the practice of writers having other writers read their work', says Swicord, who recently took her first shot at directing a feature from her own script with the upcoming The Jane Austen Book Club.
How much the writers' efforts can achieve will depend on how widely they are supported and how much resistance they meet in the industry.
Some writers suggest ongoing involvement in the production process has to be earned rather than mandated. Sometimes, says the UK's Julian Fellowes, an Oscar-winner for his Gosford Park script, a screenwriter's role is 'like Tinkerbell's in Peter Pan - if you can sustain (the producer and director's) belief in your feeling for the material, why would they not listen to you''
And objecting to executives' script notes, says Fellowes, who is writing The Young Victoria for producers Graham King and Martin Scorsese, 'is like objecting to getting wet when you want to be a swimmer'.
Some producers, however, are sympathetic to the writers' cause.
'Screenwriters have been undervalued in the industry equation for some time,' affirms producer Cary Brokaw, whose credits include Sex And Death 101 and Closer. 'I think it's both possible and appropriate that they defend their stature and have leverage in the way movies are put together.'
The cause could be a tough sell, though, to those Hollywood actors and directors who like to bring in their own writers whenever they commit to a project - and to the studios that need to secure the actors' and directors' services.
The writers' hope is that they can prove to studios and other players that new, more writer-centric practices can provide a creatively and financially viable alternative to the current system for turning scripts into movies.
The recent writers' initiatives, says Writers' Co-Op board member Nick Kazan, 'are attempts to change the mindset and practices in the industry. We hope that by showing good films can be made in this way, it will again become routine to involve writers throughout the process and not to change writers just because there's something the executives feel isn't there - or as an insurance policy so executives can feel they've done everything they can to produce a good script.'