MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #6
It's 2011 and the start of my 101st quarter in Westwood. As I discuss in the feature below, just as the elements of a good narrative haven't changed since Aristotle, misperceptions regarding the writer's role remain constant. Our charge remains the same: to tell a story that is engaging and compelling, that is, a story worth the time, attention, and consideration of the audience, not to mention the price of a ticket.
ONE HUNDRED QUARTERS IN WESTWOOD
The Saga Continues
I perpetually fear a knock at the door from the Shore Patrol. I imagine them standing on my porch, reading me my rights as they arrest me on charges of being AWOL.
What can account for this?
As a college professor I sign gazillions of documents: petitions for advancement to candidacy, certifications of admission to our Master of Fine Arts program, change-of-grade protocols, removal-of-incomplete forms, audio/visual equipment requisitions, and my favorite, ‘general-purpose petitions.’
I long ago stopped reading these forms; I merely sign them. That's why I worry. That's why I worry that somewhere along the way, at one time or another, however unwittingly, I may have joined the Navy.
While we’re on the subject of reading forms, or more precisely NOT reading forms, I also don’t read my 1040s from the IRS. Why bother? If I read them I wouldn’t understand them. They couldn’t be less clear to me if they were written in Swahili. What’s my accountant for? Shouldn’t he be the one to read (and as much as is possible also to understand) the documents?
Likewise, I don’t read my book or screenplay contracts. Like the IRS forms, they are written in a language that is to me unknown. I remember a contract for an assignment at Warner Brothers where I was awarded a small percentage of what was described as the ‘net profit’ of the movie I was working on. On the page beside the ‘net profit’ was an asterisk. At the bottom of the page was another asterisk, to which the previous asterisk referred. It read: “See Appendix A”.
Attached to the end of the eight-page contract, Appendix A was a forty-two page (in micro print on legal-sized paper) “definition of net profit.” I always tell my students that ‘net profit’ derives from the Russian “nyet profit,” or “no profit.” Doesn’t the real creative writing in Hollywood occur in the studio accounting offices?
I’ve argued in my book ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING and elsewhere that no matter how solid a contract may be, it can never be stronger than the faith of the partners who sign it. If an individual writer is going up against the entire Legal Affairs wing of a major entertainment conglomerate, there’s no way he can win an honest accounting if the drones at Accounts Payable prove faithless.
To put it more simply: there is no such thing as an iron-clad contract.
Does this mean that occasionally and inevitably writers will be cheated?
Alas, it does.
I wasn’t always this way. Years ago, before signing documents I actually used to read them. During my first academic quarter at UCLA’s film school, in the autumn of 1977, a student approached me, waving a document. “You’re Walter, right?” I pled guilty. He shoved the paper at me. “Sign this.”
He was so considerate as even to provide me with a pen.
Declining the implement I asked him, “What’s this?”
He explained that it was a Change-of-Major form. He was leaving the directing major and moving into the screenwriting major.
“You’ve lost your interest in directing and discovered a passion for writing?”
“I’ve run out of money," he said. "I can’t afford to finish my thesis film, so Professor LaTourette told me to transfer to screenwriting.”
Right there, unfortunately, is the attitude held in too many places regarding the stature of our art. Screenwriting is a fallback position for anyone encountering bankruptcy.
I explained to the student that in order to transfer to the screenwriting program he had to submit an application that included, most notably , samples of his writing.
What a concept!
Naïve as I was, I didn’t understand the politics of Academe, wasn’t thinking long-term, wasn't thinking tenure, wasn't thinking privileged parking permit. I was merely reacting honestly. This could have proven to be grossly impolitic. Prof. LaTourette was of senior rank, a longtime tenured professor who would one day sit in judgment of my own promotion. He had already told the student that the transfer to screenwriting was routine; it was the way the department handled these issues; it was a done deal. I suppose standards hold you back. Wouldn’t my action, or inaction, reduce LaTourette’s stature in the eyes of this student, and perhaps also in his own?
Looking back, it seems I should have signed the form.
How fortunate for me that Frank LaTourette, may God rest his soul, was in fact a man of honor and uncommon integrity, who was actually pleased to discover that a junior member of the faculty actually possessed a backbone. Throughout our years together in Westwood he became my dear friend and fierce ally. I still miss his sweet, quirky, good natured presence.
I'm afraid that the stature of screenwriting within film schools sadly mirrors the disrespect assigned it in the movie industry.
I’m reminded of a tale I was told is true--though it may be apocryphal--regarding another corner of the entertainment business: advertising.
The ad-game equivalent of the Oscar is the Chloe. The Chloe awards are held in New York, still the center of the advertising world. At a post-Chloe Awards party in a penthouse nosebleed-high atop a luxurious apartment tower on the fashionable Upper East Side, jingle composers celebrated the winners. A jingle is, of course, a musical piece that accompanies a commercial and identifies a particular product. Some fairly heavy hitters start out in the music business penning these ditties. The tune accompanying “You deserve a break today at McDonalds,” for example, was written by Barry Manilow.
In the background at the Chloe party a tape plays that represents a compendium of all the top jingles released in the past year. Beyond the idle, sophisticated cocktail party chatter and the clinking of ice in cocktail glasses, remarks are heard along the lines of: “Hey, isn't that Harvey’s 30-second Ford spot ? Listen to what he does here with the maracas. Isn’t that brilliant? Oh! There’s Betty’s Dial Soap ten-second teaser. Isn’t it clever the way she uses inverted triplets and augmented ninths?”
Purportedly, someone sneaks into the apartment’s closet that serves as a media control room, slowly cranks down the tape and replaces it with the timeless Columbia Blue-Label recording of Nathan Milstein playing the unaccompanied violin partitas of Bach.
Slowly, people become aware of the genius of Bach. The conversation gradually collapses. Soon enough all conversation ceases and for a half hour there is nothing but the beauty and brilliance of Bach.
When the tape finally runs out there is pin-drop silence.
Now, at last, the silence is broken, perhaps involuntarily, by someone who utters more loudly than he intends, “If I only had the time!”
That’s the difference, you see, between this jingle meister and Bach. Bach had time. This other guy has to get his teeth cleaned, his oil changed, his shoes shined and a zillion other chores that burdened Bach not at all.
If only he had the time he wouldn't be hawking tomato paste or disposable diapers, he'd be Johann Sebastian Bach.
Make no mistake about it, there are legions of people in the movie business, and some also on college campuses, among them even faculty at film schools, who believe that the difference between directors and writers is that writers have on their hands a whole lot of time.
Real-Time Screenwriting Talks with Richard Walter: New Monthly Seminar to Scripped.com Subscribers
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Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars:
January 28-30, 2011, San Diego State University Writing Conference, San Diego, CA
February 2011 (Date TBD) - Masters Screenwriting Class, Teleseminar for Scripped.com
February 18-20, 2011, San Francisco Writers Conference,
San Francisco, CA
March 2011 (Date TBD) - Masters Screenwriting Class, Teleseminar for Scripped.com
March 9-20, 2011 - Pitchfest - Brisbane; Master Screenwriting Class - Sydney; Hosted by Screen Queensland and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School
For Richard’s full calendar of appearances please visit http://richardwalter.com/attend-a-seminar/.