If Hollywood were interested only in producing great art, screenwriters would be L.A. royalty. But the movie business is really about making money, which is why writers must act like court jesters, are treated like serfs -- and sometimes are paid like kings.
"Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture," screenwriter Joe Gillis whines in the 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard." He ends up dead, face down in a swimming pool. In "The Player," Robert Altman's new film, a fictional screenwriter named David Kahane complains bitterly about his unappreciated lot, screaming at a studio executive on a Pasadena street.
Kahane ends up dead too, face down in a puddle.
In Premiere magazine's current ranking of Hollywood's most powerful 100 people, not one screenwriter made the list. Unlike the theater, where the playwright's work is nearly sacrosanct, the screenwriter's efforts are often just piecework in Hollywood's dream factory, albeit obscenely well-paid piecework.
It is not uncommon, for example, for an established movie screenwriter to be paid six figures just for an idea he tosses off during a meeting with a studio executive, says Michael Tolkin, the man who wrote "The Player." These meetings, where writers frantically pitch their plots to disinterested studio executives, form some of the funniest scenes in the new film.
These writers will be paid no matter what sort of finished script they eventually hand in. After that, "development" begins -- another writer may be called in to make changes, then another, and maybe even another, Mr. Tolkin says. Sometimes the film is made, sometimes it's not.
Mr. Tolkin himself had worked as a Hollywood writer for six years, working on new projects and "doctoring" existing ones, when he wrote the novel version of "The Player." For all his time there, all he had to show for it was an unfinished film based on one of his screenplays.
"When I wrote the book, I was doing my best to get out of Hollywood," Mr. Tolkin says. "I never wanted to write a screenplay for it."
The concept of team writing dates back to the birth of movies, says film historian Rudy Behlmer. Obligated to put out a film a week, studios hired squads of writers to hammer out formula pictures. Some specialized in jokes or romantic dialogue.
Mr. Behlmer says the deadline pressure did produce gems; the script for "Casablanca," for example, went through at least eight different writers in under six months and wasn't completed until after shooting began in the spring of 1942.
Mr. Tolkin says the studio's writing-by-committee is a defense mechanism. "One of the reasons Hollywood puts these stories through so many different wringers is because they have to feel comfortable a story can withstand the brutality of an audience," he says. "If an idea can't survive being beaten up [by studio executives], they're worried it can't survive being beaten up by an audience."
Once the script is put into production, the writer slips even further down the food chain. Even Joe Eszterhas, one of Hollywood's superstar writers who earns millions for his scripts, was powerless to make any changes in his script for "Basic Instinct" after he listened to gay and lesbian complaints. The director, Paul Verhoeven, simply told him to forget it. Mr. Eszterhas, who later sided with Mr. Verhoeven, got $3 million for his troubles.