The Biz
Despite an impressive slate of adult dramas at the Oscars this year, screenwriters still hit a wall when pitching studios. The solution for many: television.  

(March 5, 2012) 

This year’s slate of Oscar-nominated films was encouraging to screenwriters, representing a rich mix of adult dramas that proved to be big moneymakers as well as critical hits. The hope, many writers agree, is that the commercial success of Argo and Silver Linings Playbook, among others, will encourage studios to continue to greenlight these kinds of films in addition to the tentpoles and franchises that have dominated releases over the past five years.

Photo: Stephanie Wiley
Craig Mazin  

But as the number of movies shrinks each year and as studios frenziedly clamor for overseas success, a modicum of skepticism is appropriate, if not needed. “There will always be five to ten movies a year that the Academy can honor for Best Picture,” says screenwriter Craig Mazin (Identity Thief, The Hangover Part II), who concedes that comedy, the genre in which he works, has fared better than most. “Oscars garner prestige and attract directors, actors and writers, but in of themselves are not what drive the development slate. What drives the development slate is the desire to maximize profit. The one hope we can take from this year’s Oscars is that this time the majority of adult dramas being honored made a lot of money.”

Photo: Deverill Weekes
Billy Ray  

Says screenwriter-director and WGAW Board Member Billy Ray (Hunger Games, State of Play): “Studios consider foreign markets to be the driver now; you get the overwhelming feeling that stories that take place in America start with one strike against them. And if you walk in with a project that has even a whiff of drama attached to it, it had better be disguised as a genre movie.”

The good news for writers, however, is that the realities of the marketplace, coupled with a changing creative landscape, have fueled a proliferation of storytelling on television and a migration to TV that was unheard of even a decade ago. Ushering in what’s being called a “new” Golden Age, cable television is swollen with innovative storytelling and first-rate talent. Some writers have abandoned the big screen altogether, happily ensconced in critically acclaimed small-screen productions. Others are expanding their repertoires and writing for both film and television. A new paradigm is emerging of the writer as entrepreneur.

Photo: Jilly Wendell
Callie Khouri  

This also extends to the broadcast networks. Academy Award-winning screenwriter-director Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise, Something to Talk About) is making her first foray into network television this season with Nashville, ABC’s take on the drama-rich world of country music. Khouri says her brand of female characters no longer resonates with film executives which, in part, is what interested her about TV.

“Studios used to know a writer’s work based on their track record,” says Khouri, who adds that she will nonetheless continue to also pen movies. “Now it seems more like a demolition derby where they’re hearing multiple pitches and you’re pitching to different people. It’s elbows out and no guarantees about anything, and you get basically a one-step deal, which means that all the other protections against writing multiple drafts are gone.”

Ray, who’s attached to an upcoming TV pilot as director and is also working on scripts for The Mummy and Sinatra, tries at every juncture to remind studio executives of the business value in good storytellers.

“I encourage them to look at the tentpoles that are keeping their studios in business,” he says. “They will see what Alvin Sargent did on Spiderman, what Steve Kloves did on Harry Potter, what Tony Gilroy did on Bourne, and what Gary Ross did on The Hunger Games. These guys all spent years learning their craft by writing intelligent studio movies, some of them dramas, and they all brought that high level of craft to bear when it was time to write those tentpole movies. If you don’t, as a studio, finance any dramas, what's going to happen ten years from now when you wake up and find that you haven't developed a bench of writers capable of delivering the next set of tentpoles? Who's going to write them for you?”

Photo: Andy Sacks
Derek Haas  

In the meantime, the screenwriters who are working in television speak of the exhilaration of a decidedly different tempo and process. “I love that you write it, shoot it and it’s on the air,” says Khouri. “You don’t wait months and months and hope it gets distributed and released on a good weekend. It’s a much more open and inclusive process than when you’re writing for a feature film.”

Screenwriter Derek Haas and partner Michael Brandt (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted) jumped into television this season because the timing was right when they were approached to develop the NBC drama Chicago Fire. “The fun part of television is that the writer really is the boss of the production,” says Haas. “It’s also fun in its pace, like writing chapters of a book where you get to spread out storytelling over 24 episodes.”

That said, the new paradigm demands flexibility and an enterprising spirit as writers move back and forth. Ray says he works “much harder” today than he did when he broke into the business. And television – while offering new opportunities for writers – is by no means easy going either. “Writers always have to fight their way past a dozen gates just to get a ‘maybe,” says Mazin. “Is the writer king in television? No. The king, for better or worse, is and always has been the money.”