The power of screenwriters

January 24th, 2013 by

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…

To 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.

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5 thoughts on “The power of screenwriters

  1. The landscape is changing yet again with online being the new shift in technology. I was at meeting last night at the WGA for the Education Committee and saw the divisions among the old-guard and the online-types. We as writers have so much power, especially if we start acting like producers and entrepreneurs. I fear that if we keep the old mindsets we’ll keep scrambling for the same scraps.

  2. Generally, I consider myself a filmmaker, and pursue every opportunity to produce my writing on my own. But recently, I’ve been writing for other people more often and have run into the phrase “You’re just the writer” a number of times. Words cannot describe how much it stings to hear, and how infuriating it is to be denied the acknowledgement of completely creating a universe…

    I suppose I’ll just have to take solace in the fact that I am the master of these worlds on the page.

  3. I learned 5 years after film school; and settling — out of court — 2 plagirism/copyright infringement lawsuits — which I won — that no one in Hollywood, outside of a select few, are those I can trust. I mention that in conversations with producers, agents, directors and actors…the eyes start to roll. I mention that in conversations with screenwriters-filmmakers from the 30s, 40s, ( yes, there still are some around) 50s ,60s and 70s, and they themselves nod in agreement and tell me their very, very same war stories. In this digital age and its future? Here’s what I’ve learned and believe in what’s ahed; writers — the truest creators of content — need to either start directing and producing themselves, or find like minded producer-directors and actors-actresses who believe in the power of the writer first and foremost. We also need to understand and actually see the end result of the product-project first and foremost, especially if you have a small, low or no budget, and create your product-project around the access to equipment and location and talents you have before you create the story and story world. And not the other way around. By understanding and having the nuts and bolts — logistics — figured out ahead of time…you work your way backwards and get the final goal achieved and distributed to your audience which is global. Start forgetting about ONLY domestic theatrical. Go global with just as much passion and fury and belief and cut out ALL the MIDDLE people between you and the audience. Not only will you be creatively and financially successful…but you’ll get rid of the majority of the thieves in the process. Regardless of your contribution to movie making and its history…Mr. Thalberg…you went about it the wrong way.

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