Thursday, June 26, 2008

What Happens Next?

Not too long ago a friend referred me to Marc Norman’s book What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting (Harmony, 2007), saying that it had helped him to overcome writer’s block. For a writer this is high praise indeed, so I decided to check it out. The title alludes to the frustration of viewers and filmmakers alike in a decade that has been characterized by uninspired movie sequels, remakes and “re-imaginations.” The American film industry is in need of a creative renaissance – the question is where that new spark of vitality will come from. Marc Norman doesn’t have an answer to the question he poses. Instead, he asks readers to draw their own conclusions from a broad history of American screenwriting.

For the sake of simplicity, we can break down Norman’s chronological narrative into three sections: (1) the studio era, (2) the auteur era, and (3) the blockbuster era. In the studio era, movies were written by committee. Writers, just like actors and directors, were part of permanent staffs at the major studios. In theory, the advantage of this kind of system is that writers can balance out the weaknesses of each others’ scripts. The disadvantage is the high potential for disagreement over just what those weaknesses are. Studio heads (and sometimes actors) were the final arbiters, and they often took credit for writing the scripts… at least, up until the Paramount Consent Decree of 1948, which effectively dismantled the studio system.

Then came the rise of the auteur, a storyteller who exerts supreme authority over a film – bringing a solitary “vision” to the screen. The role of the auteur has never been as decisive in practice as it is in film criticism, but it’s nevertheless a legitimate way to view certain films and certain filmmakers. The impetus in “New Hollywood” was not so much toward megalomania (at least, not at first) as toward thrift. Independent films had to be made cheaply, so filmmakers like Roger Corman – who was, essentially, a one-man production studio – were in high demand. (Sadly, Corman is little more than a footnote in this book.) Once such a person had proven their ability to make a financially successful film, financiers were willing to give them more money. Gradually, the studios became financiers for young auteurs. This system sounds okay in theory; the problem is that auteurs aren’t completely reliable: some auteurs are better writers than directors, while some are better suited for directing or producing. This imperfect system, designed to produce very personal films, eventually created a great deal of friction between the businessmen and the artists.

The success of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” in 1975 ushered in the blockbuster era, when virtually all Hollywood films had to be “high concept” (read: expensive). With so much money riding on every project, everyone is replaceable – writers, directors, actors, and producers. Today, it seems that every Hollywood film is a power struggle. The person with the most financial clout ultimately gets to determine the “vision” of the film by choosing who to keep on board and who to discard. Norman’s book suggests that, for the writer, things have become particularly grim. It’s a rare case, after all, when the writer’s name is a stronger guarantee of box office success than an actor or director’s name… so the writer is usually the most replaceable member of the team. In effect, most of Hollywood’s biggest movies are written by a committee of wanna-be-auteurs.

So how can we expect much more from our movies than a hodgepodge of mismatched ideas? The truth that Norman’s book drives home is that Hollywood filmmaking has always been a struggle between strong ideas about art and commerce – it’s a business that is constantly waxing and waning between audience preference for financially-proven “high-concept” formulas and unique, personal visions. At the end of the book, most people will probably find themselves thinking that we’re due for a shift toward unique, personal visions (something like the “New Hollywood” renaissance of the 1970s – well documented in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and IFC’s documentary A Decade Under the Influence)… the question is whether the studios, or – more to the point – the consumers, will force this to happen.

For better or worse, Norman’s book doesn’t speculate on the future. What Happens Next? instead presents contextual histories of certain famous – and in some cases, not so famous – screenwriters, from D.W. Griffith’s young scenarist Anita Loos (Norman notes that most screenwriters in the 1920s were women, because they read more fiction and they could be underpaid) to postmodern wunderkinds like Charlie Kaufmann (whose film Adaptation Norman reads as a confession that “trying to reach beyond the usual Hollywood synthetic, to write something that brought fresh air into a movie narrative, was simply impossible”). We get to eavesdrop on some of the studio era’s literary scribes, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West – both of whom felt that the studio system was stifling their creative potential. William Faulkner is also mentioned several times, but his career in the movies remains enigmatic in Norman’s treatment. I found myself wondering about John Fante, another literary icon who made a living in Hollywood… but I suppose I’ll have to go to his biography for more information.

The author highlights screenwriters who proved to be exception to the “script-by-committee” rule: for example, Howard Mankiewicz, who wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Welles and thereby helped to cement Welles’s reputation as an auteur, and Robert Riskin, who had a loyal but tumultuous working relationship with A-list director Frank Capra. We get amusing anecdotes about films that transcended the turmoil of the studio era’s collaborative writing process (the fact that Casablanca turned into a watchable movie, let alone a classic, is a minor miracle) and a lengthy history of Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of the “Hollywood Ten,” which nearly undermined the future of the WGA. When the book finally gets around to the “New Hollywood” era, it’s covering pretty well-trodden ground but figures like Paul Schrader and George Lucas are interesting as always and the in-depth treatment of the career of Padddy Chayefsky is especially engaging. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings – a handful of writers like Joe Eszterhas, Steven Soderberg, and Quentin Tarantino round out the author’s overview before he takes a parting glance at the recent failure of the democratization of the film industry.

It was just a few months ago, during the Writer’s Strike, that people were talking about Internet content as the future of entertainment. Striking writers said that, if the studios wouldn’t pay them adequately for their contributions, they would take matters into their own hands – revolutionizing the industry by bringing their stories directly to the masses, via sites like YouTube and Veoh. They argued that, with the content-providers gone, the Hollywood studios and their product would become empty shells. The WGA community also urged consumers to rebel by creating their own products with “pro-sumer” filmmaking technology.

I’m not sure whether this idea of pro-sumer entertainment was regarded by the writers or the studios as an empty threat, but (as of June 2008) we don’t seem to be on the cusp of a revolution in the entertainment industry. After the resolution of the strike, the writers went back to work and resumed business as usual. Judging by the closing pages of his book, I doubt that Marc Norman is surprised. He doesn’t seem to have much faith in the idea of consumers making their own films and television show – but this is mostly because he thinks that audiences require a bigger change in their entertainment than a new batch of auteurs. He tantalizingly mentions interactive gaming as a road to the future, but fails to elaborate.

This is an idea that’s got me thinking... Will audiences soon require a more immersive experience than cinema? Maybe something like the technological head trips of Oliver Stone’s mid-1990s miniseries Wild Palms? If so, what’s going to happen to screenwriters? How will the art of storytelling change and adapt for the 21st century? Are we due for a new medium – something just as revolutionary as the invention of cinema? I love Paul Schrader’s response to this possibility: “I do not care if they stop making movies. It is just another tool. I will put the hammer down and reach for the screwdriver and find another medium to work in. It is not about this sacred thing called the cinema. To me it’s all about storytelling and self-exploration.”

So, what happens next? If Marc Norman can write a follow-up, that’s a book I’d like to read…


  1. Dennis Fischer6/26/2008

    Just a little footnote on Roger Corman. Early in Roger's career, he learned what screenwriters he could count on and employed them again and again (e.g., Charles B. Griffith, R. Wright Campbell, Richard Matheson). Later, when he became a studio head, keeping his eye on the bottom line, he would practice tricks such as paying a kid $500 to write an amateur screenplay. He would then take the result to a professional writer to do a page one re-write because the Guild minimum fee for a re-write was much less than the fee for writing an original screenplay. As a whole, I do find Corman's New World films entertaining and his New Concorde/Millennium movies unwatchable.

  2. Thanks, Dennis. One of the main themes of Marc Norman's book is that hard-working screenwriters often get overlooked because of the auteur theory, and there's no question that Corman owes a huge debt to those key writers who worked the salt mines for him. I've been revisiting some of their early films lately, after re-reading Corman's autobiography.... I haven't watched any New Concorde / Millenium movies since the Carnosaur series in the early 90s. But a friend just convinced me to start watching DTV-era Steven Seagal movies, so maybe I'm in the right frame of mind try Corman's latest.. Can't he find any good, cheap writers these days?