Screenwriter Chris Sparling (Buried, ATM) tweeted this the other day:
“The most important person in the motion picture process is the writer… and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from ever realizing it.” — Irving Thalberg
It’s a famous quote from arguably Hollywood’s first great movie producer. Thalberg had a contentious relationship with writers, one with some bite to it witness this:
In 1934, with talk of a strike by a budding writers guild in the air, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg laid down the law to a group of Metro writers. “If you proceed with this strike,” he said, “I shall close this studio, lock the gates and there will be an end to MGM productions. And it will be you — all you writers — who will have done it.”
I teach a university class called the History of American Screenwriting in which I teach my students that just about as soon as movies went from this…
…Writers got screwed.
For decades, writers did not receive screen credit. Thalberg himself instituted a practice of employing multiple authors on the same project, often two or three versions of a script being written at the same time, writers on parallel tracks without telling any of the parties involved, a practice known as “following.”
Screenwriter George Seaton tells of a writing session with his partner Robert Pirosh on the MGM Marx Brothers script A Night at the Opera:
We were in our little cubbyhole and we were talking about it and we stopped, paused, trying to think. And we heard something in the next office. In those days that little Writer’s Building had tissue paper walls. We heard somebody talking about the same scene…We didn’t know who it was, so we waited until they came out and it was Bert (Kalmar) and Harry (Ruby). We introduced ourselves and I said, “We were told to work on this thing. And they said, “So were we and we heard you talking through the walls, too. So the four of us got together after that and we worked on the scene as a quartet.
Writers really got reamed when movie studios obtained ownership of story copyrights, something which has put us on the defensive ever since. And yet there’s this:
“The most important person in the motion picture process is the writer… and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from ever realizing it.”
What is that power?
I think when you boil it all down, it’s this: We can do what they can’t. Or at least that is their perception.
Writers have the ability to create something out of nothing.
Writers have the instincts to generate winning movie ideas.
Writers have the power to craft great stories.
Movie studios need product. That product depends on scripts. And who writes those scripts?
Producers may help to package movies. Directors may go off and make movies. Studios may market and distribute movies. But no one gets anywhere or does anything without the efforts of screenwriters.
Thalberg knew that. Hence his quote.
So the next time you sit down to write, embrace the power of your imagination, your creativity, your voice. Because even though the filmmaking process is a collaborative effort, without you…
There are no movies.