I saw this short piece posted about UCLA part-time lecturer Sam Albrecht and then reposted it. I find it encouraging that a college screenwriting teacher is telling the truth.
This article by Amiee Manis (See below) shows that few WGA screenwriters are working and for that matter ever work. Only 8.1% of all WGA screenwriters worked in 2011. (1,562). I suspect film and other schools have four times that number in classes now. This disconnect between the industry is ignored. Numbers for DGA directors are slightly better. What's wrong with this picture? How are the schools addressing this disconnect? How can they seriously offer a "professional training program" when there is no "there" there? See full article below.
Hope In Students' Eyes Too Much For Screenwriting Teacher To Handle This Week
LOS ANGELES—Spending his Tuesday office hours meeting individually with each student in his Screenwriting II class at the University of California, Los Angeles, part-time lecturer Sam Albrecht, 33, told reporters that the eagerness and optimism in his students’ gazes had become too much for him to bear. “There’s this earnest twinkle in their eyes when they look at you, like they really believe they have a chance, and—I’m sorry, but it just tears me to pieces,” said the man who has written 20 screenplays but never had one produced. “I really don’t know if I can keep it together through another four hours of these kids talking about the third-act problems they’re so sure they can work out.” At press time, Albrecht was reportedly choking back tears as he forced himself to indulge a sophomore’s speculation about which Hollywood actors she imagined in her script’s roles, and to agree that Steven Soderbergh could indeed be a good choice for directing it.
Plot Twist: Survival of the Hollywood Screenwriter ‹ Studio System News
By Aimee Manis
The First in a Series on the Fate of the Screenwriter in Today’s Hollywood
Talk to any screenwriter—a newbie, a veteran, an A-Lister—and you’re sure to hear the same worrying refrain. The Hollywood landscape has gone through vast changes in recent years, and all of them seemingly at the screenwriter’s expense.
On July 2, 2012, the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) released a report that confirmed the angst-filled chatter among all levels of writers. The report stated that screenwriting jobs and wages in Hollywood fell for the second straight year, putting facts and figures to what screenwriters already knew: The cost-cutting of studios, all of them making fewer movies year by year, has resulted in fewer jobs available for drafts, rewrites and polishes not to mention less development funds for spec scripts. Over the past several years, screenwriters have faced ever-greater obstacles in trying to earn a living in this industry.
As detailed in the WGAW report, employment declined 8.1% for screenwriters in 2011 with a total of 1,562 writers reporting earnings against 1,699 writers in 2010. In 2011, total earnings dropped 12.6% to $349.1 million, down from $399.4 million in 2010. From 2009 to 2011, the number of writers employed in film fell by more than 15% and earnings dropped by over 20%. Further, total feature film residuals shrank by 10% from $141.8 million in 2010 to $128.5 million in 2011. The drop was led by the significant decline in receipts writers earned from DVD and Blu-ray sales, which dropped 23.9% in 2011 from its record year in 2010.
Here’s another stat from the WGAW report worth noting: 2,041 writers reported earnings in 2007, the year in which the infamous “writers strike” began—that’s a whopping 23.5% more than the 1,562 writers with reported earnings in 2011. Moreover, total earnings in 2007 were $526.6 million, 34% more than the $349.1 million in earnings in 2011. Moreover, according to MPAA reports, the number of releases from the major studios has steadily declined since 2008. That year saw a total of 168 studio releases. The number fell to 158 in 2009, then to 141 in both 2010 and 2011, and to 128 in 2012. These numbers bear out the sentiments of many writers, agents and managers who have witnessed the post-strike decline of the film industry.
THE WRITER’S STRIKE AND ITS AFTERMATH
The struggle of the screenwriter began more than five years ago, when the Writers Guild of America (WGA) launched a strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on November 5, 2007 and immediately shut down production on numerous films and more than 60 television shows through February 12, 2008. There were several issues of contention between the two industry groups, including a WGA-proposed increase in the residual rate for DVD sales and union jurisdiction over animation and reality television writers.
But the core issue for most writers was the dispute over “new media” revenue sharing. At the time, both sides of the strike were facing a changing and largely unknown industry due to innovations in the way consumers watch entertainment outside of movie theaters or their living rooms. Writers needed to protect their future income from residuals from movies, TV shows and other work distributed through the Internet and viewed on computers, phones and other devices, as well as revenues for original content created for the Web. WGA members argued that residuals are an integral part of a writer’s income and are depended upon during the periods of unemployment that are inevitable in the industry.
It took more than three months for a new contract between the WGA and the AMPTP to be signed. Though the outcome was considered a success and an important victory for the striking writers, the contract included several concessions. For example, union jurisdiction was not granted to the writers of animation or reality TV, studios would be allowed to hire non-union writers for low-budget Internet shows and writers would not earn residuals for repeat shows viewed online within a few weeks after the original air date. Gains for the writers included formalized union jurisdiction over content created for the Web and residuals for shows streamed on ad-supported sites. Additionally, the residual rate for programs streamed online would be a much higher rate than that paid for DVD sales.
The effects of the writer’s strike still resonate throughout the entertainment industry today. After all, the strike not only halted the work and wages of writers but also that of thousands of actors, production assistants and affected virtually every crew department, from camera operators to makeup artists. In turn, related businesses such as equipment rental, accounting, catering, transportation and hotels suffered directly from the strike. Over time, the loss in wages and drop in consumer spending by entertainment employees rippled through countless seemingly-unrelated industries like retail, dining, insurance, auto and housing. According to a May, 2008 report by The Milken Institute, “The three-month strike had a substantial impact on California’s economy in general and on Los Angeles County, in particular. The work stoppage came at an unfortunate moment, coinciding with a major downturn in the state’s housing market. This lingering effect of the strike was one of several factors that tipped California into a recession in early 2008.”
The Second in a Series on The Fate of The Screenwriter
THE NEW WRITING LANDSCAPE
The so-called successes of the strike came at a high price. In spring 2008, screenwriters emerged from the strike to find a studio-writer relationship that has deteriorated ever since. That dynamic, coupled with an economic recession, has resulted in less work available to screenwriters across the board. In anticipation of a strike, studios stockpiled scripts for much of 2007 and then reviewed all the material they already owned during the three-plus months of the strike. The economic downturn slowed the flow of Wall Street loans to studios to a trickle, forcing the restructuring of filmmaking.
The new business model came at the screenwriter’s expense, as studios began the quest to maximize profit and minimize the number of films on their production slate. Development spending was slashed as studios could no longer afford to take as many risks on original ideas or unknown writers. And so began the current era of focusing on franchises, sequels and prequels and, some would argue, the death of creativity.
Screenwriter Dave Johnson, who teaches in the MFA Screenwriting and Producers Program at UCLA, believes that the landscape for the screenwriter changed dramatically after the strike with fewer jobs available and fewer movies being developed. Says Johnson, “I don’t think the studios set out to ‘punish’ the writers for the strike. However, the strike did enable the studios to step back and look at how they were doing business. The bottom line was they were spending a lot of money developing projects that never went anywhere.”
Now that studios no longer focus on the business of developing films, one-step deals with writers have become prevalent. The “steps” refer to various drafts of a script, and, at the end of each deal, the writer can be terminated depending on the terms of his or her contract. Prior to the strike, multi-step deals between writers and studios were the norm, many times three or even four-step deals, wherein the writer was guaranteed at least one rewrite and polish. With the one-step deal, the writer is hired to deliver a single draft of a screenplay, and all future work on it is optional and determined by the studio.
One-step deals look great on paper, since they are a way for studios to avoid investing time and money into second drafts. Also, they take on less risk when hiring an unproven writer since the writer can be easily replaced after the first draft. Not surprisingly, writers are not fans of these deals because they put extreme pressure on getting the draft right the first time around, without the crucial process of revising and fine-tuning. According to one veteran screenwriter who prefers to remain anonymous, the writing has suffered as a result of studio shortsightedness, and anything that hurts the writing hurts the movie. Hiring an endless succession of writers negatively impacts the consistency and depth of character and story development, takes away the sense of “ownership” of the project and, ultimately, shows at the box office. “I—like so many other writers— need that rewrite to find the movie. Sometimes the difference between a first and second draft from the same writer is amazing. So, trying to save money isn’t giving the studios better writing, they just end up paying for a bunch of first drafts from a bunch of different writers.”
Studios are trying to navigate this challenge by requesting and often expecting free rewrites. They also ask for detailed outlines before the writer goes to script, which is essentially a free step. Some top-tier writers don’t give in, but many low and mid-level writers aren’t powerful enough to stand up to this pressure even though doing free rewrites violates WGA rules.
The one-step deal has created the phenomenon of multiple writers on tent-pole films, with many of those writers going uncredited. For example, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens had a total of ten different writers, five credited and five uncredited. And 2009’s Iron Man had nine different writers with only four of them credited. The A-Team from had eight different writers but only three of them got credit.
So what do credits offer other than pride and name recognition? The credit system affects WGA membership, as union eligibility is based on what a writer has been credited for. Credits also affect income since some contracts limit the amount writers are eligible to be paid if they aren’t being credited. And, normally, only credited writers receive residual payments from a film’s future distribution.
Thus, the multiple-writer practice perpetuates the cycle of the struggling screenwriter, even for those who have been working consistently in the industry for years. As long as there are writers who are willing to write for lesser pay and no credit, the studios have leverage.
When pressed about the implications of the new marketplace, including the one-step deals, several screenwriters commented on the challenge to make ends meet, the stress of chasing assignments and constantly keeping one eye on the next job as soon as they start a new project. In effect, they are always dividing their attention between the work they have and the work they need to find.
Some writers feel that compensation has suffered since the recession and that even when their quotes are honored, bumps are harder and harder to negotiate. Then there are the increasingly difficult challenges to simply get hired. Studios bring in multiple suitors to pitch not just a take but sometimes the full-fledged story, before asking potential writers to revise it and pitch it again in hopes of hedging their bet before a writer is even hired.
Screenwriter Hillary Seitz (Eagle Eye, Insomnia) has been fortunate enough to work consistently in the post-strike market, but she has witnessed the system changing. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the level of competition for any job, big or small. Handfuls of writers are now thrown into the ring to duke it out.” Another screenwriter who asked not to be named, remarks, “Assignments are harder to come by, with everyone vying against each other for the same job. I end up doing a lot of free pitch work. I know I’m in a pool of tens of other writers pitching on the same project and the odds (of getting hired) are not that great.”
With a surplus of writers at all levels, where does this leave the new generation? High-profile projects including tent-poles and branded films usually demand a high-profile screenwriter seen as a safe investment. This has the unfortunate effect of shutting out the talent pool of as-yet-unknown or newer writers without A-list representation—writers that could potentially offer a fresh perspective on an existing property. Without an agent or manager, a writer doesn’t have access to writing assignments at the studios and, without the luxury of a burgeoning spec market that gave many pre-strike writers a gateway to the inner circle, it has become increasingly difficult for a newbie to get his big “break.”
Sometimes, a newcomer has to think outside the box to get noticed. Some writers have turned labels like “inexperienced” and “cheap” into bona fide hot commodities. Take for example Jeff Lieber, film and TV writer and showrunner (Lost, Necessary Roughness, Pan Am, Tuck Everlasting) who emerged on the scene more than 15 years ago. With a collection of scripts, a manager and an agent, he still needed that “big break” and how his came about has become an urban legend among the screenwriter set. After Dreamworks turned down one of his pitches, the company asked if he’d still be interested in a re-write job. Lieber was up against only one other writer for the job, but that writer turned out to be John Patrick Shanley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck and Doubt. Rising to the challenge, Lieber got creative in his bid to win his first big job. Playing up his status as a little fish in the big Hollywood pond, he sent a live fish with food and a fishbowl to the decision-making supervisor at Dreamworks, along with a note that read: “Little fish take up less space, eat less food and cost less … give a little fish a chance.” He got the job. And then another and another, including adapting Tuck Everlasting for Dreamworks not long after, and he has worked back-to-back ever since.
The Third in a Series on The Fate of The Screenwriter
The term “spec,” or “speculative,” refers to an original screenplay written without compensation to the writer. Like any capital investment, the writer invests their time (along with blood, sweat and, often, tears) into the spec with the hope of selling it to a studio, producer or production company and seeing a financial and professional return on that investment.
Whether you’re an established screenwriter—or aspire to be one—you’ve probably heard doom-and-gloom reports of today’s spec market and wondered if writing a spec is even worth your effort. Here’s a look at the current state of affairs, how to adapt to it, and why writing a spec is always worthwhile.
The Value of Spec Scripts
All unknown writers who try to break into the industry need to have several excellent writing samples in their portfolio. Even if the spec doesn’t sell, it has the potential to introduce a new writer and to launch a writing career through other assignments. Agents and managers read a spec not only to judge its inherent talent and marketability but to gauge the writer as a potential client. Even if the material isn’t a fit for them, great writing can open doors.
Even when spec sales are sluggish, there is still a need for the flow of fresh, original material and filmmakers will always be looking for visionary storytellers and the next great script. Adam Kolbrenner, manager-producer with Madhouse Entertainment, advises: “As long as a writer has a great idea for a movie, and writes that story well with an exceptional voice, the demand for specs is always high. Strive for incredible characters, original story ideas, ideas that are well-told, and let the universe decide on the great scripts.”
Riding the Spec Cycle
Entire books have been devoted to the history of the spec, and it’s rise and fall, but here’s a short version of the phenomenon and where it stands today.
In the late 1940’s, film studios phased out the full-time employment of screenwriters to cut costs and, for the first time, screenwriters had to function as independent contractors. This change led to the rise of the spec sales era of which a high water mark was the 1967 sale of William Goldman’s original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That script was sold for a then-record $400,000 to Warner Bros. in a bidding war.
In the mid-1980’s, the spec market became a headline-making force thanks to the success of Lethal Weapon, Highlander and several other big-ticket sales. That force became frenzied by the early 90’s, driven by a gold-rush mentality that saw spec price tags soar into the seven figures. For example,1992 saw the $3 million sales of both Basic Instinct, written by Joe Eszterhas (City Hall, Big Shots)and Medicine Man, written by Tom Schulman (Dead Poet’s Society), and 1996 saw the $4 million sale of The Long Kiss Goodnight, written by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout)
Alas, no frenzy lasts. By 2003, the spec bubble had burst. Annual spec sales dropped from an average of 136 down to an average of 76 per year from 2003 to 2010.
As discussed earlier in this series, the writer’s strike of 2007-2008 gave the studios plenty of time to review the arsenal of scripts they’d been hoarding instead of investing money into new material. The end of the strike was welcomed by a new world in which studios were no longer development machines but where most movie ideas were culled found from books, toys, video games and the like; the era of developing original content seemed finished.
Although experts like Jason Scoggins, founder of The Scoggins Report and SpecScout, don’t foresee the return of seven-figure sales, the spec market has leveled out in recent years. During the same period from January to May, 44 specs were sold in both 2009 and 2013, in 2010 only 35 specs were sold, in 2011 47 specs were sold, and in 2012 the spec market hit a high of 63 specs sold within that period. According to the Scoggins Report on Spec Scout, the May 20 Spec Market Scorecard shows a 30% drop in spec script sales this year over the same period last year; that’s 44 sales this year against 63 in 2012. Rightly so, there has been less material offered for sale this year than in 2012.
Taking a closer look at the facts behind the figures reveals the reason behind this market stagnation: It’s not the major studios that are driving this marketplace. Says Scoggins, “So far, 2013’s spec market has been sustained by non-studio buyers,” and the data shows that Fox and Universal are the only studios buying anywhere close to the rate of previous years.
For a bit of perspective, consider that Universal bought 9 specs in 2012. yet it’s recent purchase of the dark comedy Little Evil by Eli Craig is only its second buy this year. Making the point crystal-clear is a chart within the May 2013 Spec Market Scorecard that illustrates the buying trends by the Big Six between 2011 and 2013 when, as Scoggins points out: “Major studios cut their spending by roughly 45%.” The trend is troubling for the current spec writer but more so is the question of its effect on the future of original storytelling.
If the drop in the amount of material for sale is a barometer of the screenwriting climate, one has to wonder whether the lack of studio support is causing writers to lose faith in the spec system. Among several screenwriters interviewed, the general attitude is that selling a spec to a studio has become virtually impossible. One veteran film screenwriter admits: “I haven’t gone out with a spec in years. I think it’s a losing battle. It’s become clear that the studios are only looking for brands. Most are just pilfering their own catalog of movies to reboot.”
The glass-half-full theorists would argue that the entertainment business is inherently cyclical and that, in time, the spec market will correct itself. Either that or the studios will simply run out of big titles to remake and will have to fill their development pipeline with original scripts again. As one screenwriter puts it, “Eventually, the studios will either (A) run out of known brands and start pumping out lesser known brands, which leads to (B) the audience becoming tired of branded movies.”
Independents Offer a Silver Lining
Fortunately, studios aren’t the only game in town. A buyer is anyone with access to production financing, and the number of independent finance/production or finance/distribution companies who shop the spec market is significant and increasing each year. According to Scoggins, while it’s become exceptionally difficult to sell a spec to a studio, a “silver lining” can be found in the rise of non-studio buyers. He believes independents represent a great opportunity for writers, and his research shows that the range of material being purchased by non-studio buyers is much wider than what was considered by the studios.
Compared to a studio, an independent company invests in fewer scripts, giving them a far better ratio of purchase-to-production than the studios can claim. Says one veteran screenwriter, “Selling a spec to an independent company may give the writer a real shot at seeing their project come to fruition rather than watching it languish in development hell at a studio.” Regarding purchase or option prices, he adds, “The amount of money upfront may not be as big [as what a studio would pay], but if the film gets made, the production bonus may make up for the difference.”
Commercialism Continues to Reign
In the quest for the next breakthrough story, writers are creating characters and worlds in innovative ways and seeking a voice as unique and distinctive as a fingerprint. Yet, the economics of film production dictate that the finished product must be viewed through the lens of commerce—an inescapable fact of the business of Hollywood. The effect of high-value intellectual property—think powerhouse series like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight—on the way Hollywood does business is profound. The choice between producing another installment of The Lord of the Rings and rolling the dice on an original script is a no-brainer for a major studio.
Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List, believes that the industry needs to do a better job at blending the creative and the commercial, that is, letting scripts tell a human story, then adding certain elements, like action sequences and set pieces, to make it commercial. He adds, “Historically, writers have been the most undervalued part of the business, but they now stand to benefit from the economic shift. There is and will be growing recognition of the writers and writer-directors who are the key to great storytelling.” Meanwhile, as the next generation of writers waits for both audiences and studios to sour on sequels, they should be developing specs designed to be both original and commercial.
Knowledge Is Power
Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s no longer an option for screenwriters, who have access to more industry information than ever before thanks to resources such as The Scoggins Report on Spec Scout and The Black List. Researching development trends can give writers insight into how marketable (or not) their scripts are in the evolving climate; the data can revewal what specs have sold, who bought them, which genres are hot and what types of projects are being made by studios versus independents. Before they even begin writing a script, writers can get a grasp on the spec marketplace and which buyers are the right targets for their material. For those writers who subscribe to the write-what-they’re-buying theory of spec success, there’s no such thing as too much information.
So what genres are hot for spec sales? Thrillers topped the charts in 2011 and 2012, accounting for over 25% of sales, with comedies placing second in 2011 and tying with action-adventures for second place in 2012 at around 21% of sales. Drama is the current underdog, with a sales share below 10%.
A word of warning: Writers must know the market, but being beholden to the facts and figures can also crush creativity. When a writer is clearly aiming for what buyers want, rather than following their own passion, the results can be emotionally hollow and mechanical. Similarly, writers who rigidly stick to formula or who try to force their vision to fit the template of a particular genre are doing a disservice to the story and to themselves.
The Sky’s the Limit
The script services offered by SpecScout and The Black List have broken down some of the long-standing barriers to entry for aspiring screenwriters. Writers without connections in the industry, without an agent or manager or who live outside L.A. or New York have no excuse to sideline themselves now that these resources can get specs in front of the right people. Unknown writers are being discovered through these services and being signed by agents and managers.
Writers from all over the world can now find an audience for their work. According to The Black List, screenplays have been uploaded to the paid service from 34 countries and from all 50 states. The Black List recently announced its first international sale, the spec script Broken Cove by Irish writer Declan O’Dwyer.
As Players Diversify, Every Spec Has a Shot
While no one is claiming it’s easy to sell a spec—not by a long shot—it’s being done month after month. There will be writers who deplore the dismal state of the entertainment industry, attributing their lack of success on the economic shifts in the industry, and there will be those who adapt to the New Hollywood, using all of the resources, tools and technology available to them to stack the odds in their favor. Take a piece of advice from Jason Scoggins: “Ignore the short-term numbers and keep writing specs.” No matter the ever-shifting fortunes of the Big Six, the widening diversity in financing, production and distribution options seen now with the rise of independent and Internet players means there will always be potential for talented spec writers to find success.
The Fourth in a Series on The Fate of The Screenwriter
Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a gradual shift in the screenwriting world, wherein feature writers no longer look at television as a second-tier medium. Just as viewers have tired of the sequel-prequel-reboot-repeat pattern of theatrical fare and turned to TV for compelling characters and stories, so have the screenwriters. Visionaries who established their names in the film medium are bringing their talent to the small screen now in what is referred to as “The Golden Age of Television.” While reports on the film industry continue to forecast dwindling writing opportunities for the big screen, it comes as no surprise that screenwriters are turning to TV to compensate for the decline in studio production. Television is burning hotter than ever before, offering greater opportunities for creative control and financial success.
Exceptional TV dramas like Mad Men and Game of Thrones,and sitcoms like Modern Family and Arrested Development have all benefited from this shift in perception and raised the bar on great writing. As screenwriter Beau Willimon showed audiences with House of Cards, top writers are bringing their A-game to TV, knowing that the opportunity for risk-taking storytelling—particularly on cable and new media—is gaining momentum, season after season.
Growth of the TV Sector
As reported previously in this series, the film industry has yet to claw its way back from its post-writers strike decline. According to the 2013 annual report from the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW), the number of its members employed in film declined for the third consecutive year, with a 7% drop from 2011 to 2012 and a 35% drop from 2007 to 2012. Writer earnings followed suit, with 6.1% less earned in 2012 than 2011. The major studios have continued to release fewer films each year since 2008, from a total of 168 releases in 2008 to just 128 in 2012. That translates to fewer writing jobs and less earnings each passing year, much to the despair of the writers, agents and managers who reside in the feature world.
On the flipside, employment in television is rebounding from the double-blow of the strike and economic recession. As detailed in the WGAW report, TV writers had a record year for earnings, up 10% from 2011, thanks in part to writing fees from cable programs and services such as Netflix. Total television employment by WGA members grew 2% since 2011 and caught up to its 2007 pre-strike numbers.
Further, total writer residuals collected for television programs (including network, basic cable, premium cable and reuse by new media such as Hulu and Netflix) were stronger than for film, with an increase of more than 45% from 2006 to 2012. Writer residuals collected for theatrical films, meanwhile, (including television broadcasts, pay TV and new media) increased by only 23.8% in the same period. In fact, 2012 saw an all-time high of residuals for made-for-basic cable programming as well as for residuals paid for the reuse of programs in foreign television markets. In fact, the residuals for reuse in foreign TV markets jumped by a remarkable 60% from 2010 to 2011 alone.
The WGAW also states that late reports for 2012 is expected to further elevate the TV numbers, paving the way for the continued exodus of writing talent from the big screen to the small.
Looking Behind the Numbers
Aside from the obvious lure of better employment opportunities that TV offers, the creative pull is equally strong. Simply put, film is more director-driven while TV is more writer-driven. A feature director is king of the playground while the feature writer has virtually no control over their script once they’ve turned it in, and it’s then turned over to more writers for rewrites … and so on. Not so in TV where the writers are the producers on their own shows and hold the creative power while the director is the journeyman. A television writer has the luxury of seeing their vision come to fruition, while the feature writer must answer to the director, producers and a bevy of studio executives.
Jeff Lieber, film/TV writer and showrunner (Lost, Necessary Roughness, Pan Am, Tuck Everlasting) explains, “There are many great reasons why a writer would move from films to TV, especially because of the expanding opportunities from cable since 2008. There is more space on cable than ever before, more jobs available there, and a range of channels to fit different types of writing, from AMC to FX and the like.” Lieber has seen the increased need for material, both scripted and reality, and noted an increase in dedicated audiences, as they become deeply attached to the characters in dramas like Downton Abbey and Mad Men. Lieber observes, “Networks are becoming the place to create new brands. It’s no longer the film studios. With series like Downton and Mad Men, one show can ‘brand’ a whole network now.”
With the major studios narrowing their focus on tentpole films and existing properties, TV seems to be the destination for original voices and groundbreaking new stories. In effect, one can wonder whether audiences are now looking to shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards for the compelling experiences they used to seek at the multiplex? Says one veteran screenwriter dipping her toe into TV writing, “Getting a film off the ground and finished is significantly more challenging—and slower—than ever before. Not everyone wants to wait several years between [film] productions. With a TV series, your ideas are brought to life much more quickly. Writers are in charge in TV and able to push the envelope more and more now, especially on cable.”
The fortuitous trend of film writers switching to TV isn’t limited to drama series; made-for-TV movies offer coveted opportunities too. Take, for example, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, written by feature screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures, The Mirror Has Two Faces). It garnered critical acclaim and became the highest-rated HBO movie in nine years. Helmed by an A-list director and boosted by the star power of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, the film still couldn’t attract a major studio. And yet the film, like other exceptional made-for-TV films, will be seen by many more people than if it had been released theatrically and had to fight the box-office battle. With that outcome, it’s tough to question the prestige of TV writing in today’s marketplace.
With reports sizing up the increasingly bleak marketplace for feature screenwriters, the rise of TV as an increasingly profitible industry and as an art form that rewards the writer is certainly a welcome phenomenon. Perhaps more so now than ever before, writers of all levels, from aspiring to newbie to established names, need to adapt to Hollywood’s changing landscape in order to survive. Whether they write for networks, basic or premium cable or for new media like Amazon, Hulu or Netflix, TV is the place for top writers to find creative power, financial success and career longevity. H.G. Wells put it best: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”