Make room on the endangered species list for Hollywood writers

January 29, 2008|By Mark Franek

I see dead people, and it's the striking writers in Los Angeles and New York City.

The contentious relationship is thawing between the striking writers, represented by the Writers Guild of America, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (read: Big Studios). Last week, the guild dropped its demand to expand its membership to include reality and animation writers. The word is still out how much of a bump they would receive for their downloadable work.

Let's assess the industry and the future of writers in it - if we dare.

Before the writers' strike, which began Nov. 5, only about half of the most-watched prime-time programs were scripted shows employing writers represented by the guild. The others were animated and reality shows, including game shows, employing writers and "story-shapers" not under the guild's jurisdiction.

It's no secret that American Idol has topped all shows in ratings over the past several years except for the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. This may help explain why the moguls were not eager to address the guild's main concerns, which centered on expanding the guild's jurisdiction over reality and animation writers and increasing members' take on residual content on the Internet.

You see, moguls don't need happy writers. In fact, where we're headed, they may not need writers at all. Anything goes in this burgeoning "reality" paradigm; anything, that is, except for the carefully crafted story and a little generosity at the top of the food chain.

It's said that there are no new story lines, and the current one certainly has a familiar ring. That's because this is how the vast majority of writers have always been treated in Hollywood.

Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald? He died obscure and broke in Hollywood in 1940 after failing to make the transition from a novelist to a screenwriter. But his bio was written much earlier. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald offers a warning to all would-be artists with this description of one of literature's best-known femmes fatales: "Her voice is full of money."

Back in ninth grade, I begged my parents to send me to writers' camp over the summer. They sent me to computer camp instead. In college, when I changed my major from engineering to English, my father threatened to cut off tuition. When I wrote my first op-ed, my father scoffed; he didn't make it past the first paragraph.

Don't get me wrong. My father appreciated good writing; he just didn't think there was any money or long-term happiness in it. And I have to admit it: Like most parents, if my child showed any signs of wanting to become a writer, I'd try to steer him or her in another direction.

Parental discouragement aside, there are also editors and agents, who make bouncers seem like Bambi on Ambien. Fact is, it's nearly impossible to make a steady wage as an entertainment writer or a novelist. Some dead authors succeed, if they secured a good contract pre-mortem. Today, The Great Gatsby is a perennial best-seller.

So, again: Who needs writers? Well, we all do - unless Jackass 3 (currently in production) is your cup of tea. The first two installments made $164 million at the box office. All that with no script and no discernible plot.

For so many writers, it's the story of their lives.

Mark Franek is an adjunct professor of writing at Philadelphia University. His e-mail is markfranek@gmail.com.

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