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A Screenwriters Map of the Unmappable:

PHOTO BY: Robert Zuckerman

BY ROBERT GOETHALS In the past, there was a widespread and mistaken belief that creative writing was something that couldnt be taught. The skill was mystical, inherited, God-given. Just as a Medievalist biker-author named John Gardner (The Art of Fiction) dispelled that myth for literary buds like John Cheever, a Los Angeles writer named Syd Field debunked the same myth for screenwriters.
PHOTOS TOP AND BOTTOM RIGHT: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, written by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd (characters), John D. Brancato (as John Brancato) & Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian (story), and John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris (screenplay) 2003 IMF und Film GmbH & Co. 3 Produktions KG ABOVE RIGHT: The Matrix Reloaded, written by The Wachowski Brothers 2003 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

n 1982, when Syd Fields Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting was published, filling out those dreary law school and med school applicationsthe customary middle-class ticket to respectability if not paradisesuddenly became about as appealing as moving pianos. If going to the movies felt escapist, Field made Hollywoodthe Grand Bazaar so far removed from anything resembling real lifeseem like a normal career path. If you could write a cohesive and dramatic plot, create living and breathing characters who swept your readers along a wild rollercoaster of a tale and rewarded them with emotional release that didnt feel like some crummy clich, you were halfway home. An entire generation of literarily-inclined students and slackers all took Fields insights to heart. Yet in 2003, screenwriters might do well to take a step back from Syd Field and his successors professional counsel to size up with cooler detachment how Hollywoods landscape has changed since back in the day. In a business as seductive, unmappable and perilous as the movie industry, popular paradigms designed to help writers understand Hollywoods topographical maze have limited value.

As multi-national conglomerates began taking over studios back in the 80s, the revenues generated by movie divisions struck the new breed of international business tycoons as fiscal air balls. These new global media entities wanted their studio chiefs to raise movie profits to theatrically unheard-of heightsemploying their brand of neomercantile economics, innovative marketing theories and a whole host of scientific methods to research, develop, test, revise and publicize their product. Artistic considerations, often emblematic of the industrys prestige, simply fell by the wayside. This change was the beginning of the blockbuster eraa time, most observers will tell you, when studio chiefs became money managers, and the enthusiasm for making money eclipsed the importance of what any pious film critic might say. One of the godfathers of the blockbuster era was Peter Guber, the former studio chief of Columbia Pictures and former chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures. The pragmatic Guber holds both a law and business degree from New York University. Recently, journalist Kurt Andersen interviewed Guber on Face Time. Gubers war stories are theatrical and deeply felt. His



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operative business paradigm reflects how much the movie industry has changed since the days of Hal Ashbys Shampoo and Robert Altmans McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The [economic] forces that are at work today are gigantic, enthuses Guber. The budget of Midnight Express was $1.8 million. That was the price of the catering bill on Seven Years in Tibet. That mentality concisely reveals the mentality that has the movie industry rear-viewing old hits. When things get this expensive, you cant afford to take a creative chance, so you repeat last years success. Looking backwards starts passing for being modern. When I was at Sony, Guber later recounts, I told the president of the company we want hits. The search for the blockbusterthe desire to have that mega-hitis so compelling. It is the devils candy. It is the reason why people stay in the business. It is the jackpot. It is Las Vegas. theres the second downside of the blockbuster sales pitch. When rolling so much money on a single production, executives prefer making safe decisions even if they are creatively lifeless ones. money managers and marketing mavens seem to be determining the kinds of movies being produced in 2003was leaving me a little blue. I was hoping the savvy woman who serves as the head of development for these two original and legendary filmmakers might pick up this screenwriters spirits. Theres no question the power of studio marketing machines is overwhelming, even eclipsing the content of the movies they advertise, Janet explains, corroborating my fears. Good marketing can make horrible movies look appealing. Do marketing divisions have a dominant voice in choosing the kinds of pictures being made today? I ask. No question, says Janet, except with Quentin [Tarantino]. Quentin makes the movies he wants to make. Do you have beautiful scripts on your shelvesmovies Lawrence Bender wants to producebut just cant? Because of the corporate climate? I ask. Yes, we do, Janet says. Everybody relies on the studios for financingeven Lawrence Bender. Sometimes the best you can hope for iswith some deft compromiseyoull produce the film with at least the vision it aspired to.


At the Union Square Barnes & Noble, I look to see if there are proponents of the blockbuster represented on the shelves: new instructional works on how a young screenwriter might land some Burger King tie-ins or tips on packing a script with Pentagon-style shock-and-awe special effects that you also might merchandise as a videogame. Flipping through books pages, I see how these new screenwriting coaches cut through the tedious stuff about constructing plots and character. The marketing guides are packed with tour-de-force concepts like sales strategy, presentation packets, media kits, press junkets and some cherry publicity stunts to help you go Hollywood.


Gubers cool and mesmerizing charm might prevent the young, romantically inclined screenwriter embarking on his new professional life from recognizing a couple of downsides to the studio heads philosophy of moviemaking. The first downside is that when you throw in with Gubers blockbuster paradigm, you forget that fewer movies will actually be made. In other words, instead of making, say, 25 $20 million movies, you only make five $100 million movies instead. Twenty-five screenwriters, directors and producers would be working now instead of five precious ones. On Face Time, Guber champions his blockbuster approach. Most large films that are made, confides the former Sony CEO, have to gather around people who are enormously successful. No one wants to really let anyone in that club. We get the writer who did Minority Report. We get the director who did Taxi Driver. We get Brad Pitt. This jaded journalist was an original participating screenwriter on Minority Report: a romantically inclined no-name who first brought the project to the attention of the movies executive producers. Yet after working on Minority Report for a year, I was told by my employer that the script would be better realized as a sequel to Total Recall. Because I had no avalanche of boxoffice grosses to my credit, both the employer and the studio no longer felt comfortable with someone as statistically unproven as myself. So,


After the bookstore, I had the opportunity to chat with Janet Jeffries at A Band Apart, the Los Angeles-based production company owned by Lawrence Bender and Quentin Tarantino. My investigatory journalismhow



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I mean, I say, you read a piece like the one by [University of Michigan Business School professor] Kathleen Sutcliffe in last months Harvard Business Review, and you discover that the sophisticated decision models companies use to collect and make sense of data often break down due to informational overload, especially in industries as complex and volatile as the movie industry. Its voodoo economics, says Tisch goodnaturedly. A demographics sleight-of-hand. Most marketing heads, for all their posturing, are wrong as often as theyre right. Then, as if by afterthought, Tisch adds, To be fair, not everyone comes in from the mainstream. Look at the risk Universals taking with Ang Lee, a heady guy who did The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility. Still, I say, you dont see many studios taking risks like that. And movies like The Ice Storm are as rare as diamonds. The independents will have to remain creative. That is, in creating new kinds of opportunities, Tisch responds. After all, its in their nature. Steve Tisch is exuding his own charismatic brand of ying-yangy appeal. In moviemaking, like affairs of the heart, everything is problematic. My turn to chortle. And mind you, continues Tisch, Im not suggesting every independent film is worth seeing. Thats hardly the case. The Dancer Upstairs, Blue Car, Bend It Like Beckhamthese are the exceptions. Disney gives us immense autonomy, says Osher. Weve been uniquely successful at making movies that are different from everyone elselike Fridalike the films were producing todayincluding the adaptation of Charles Fraziers classy novel Cold Mountain. These movies speak for themselves. So theres still a feeling of loyalty to the edgy, outsider company Bob and Harvey Weinstein created in 1979? I ask. Absolutely, says Osher. We make movies at reasonable budgets and expect modest profits. Whats most important to us is artistic integritynot necessarily a happy ending. Like Chicago? I ask. Precisely. Its not the kind of material youd associate with the mainstreambut it finds its way into the mainstream. So, interestingly, you see Miramax influencing the majorsmore than the majors influencing you, I say. I do, states Osher. If you split the moviemaking world into two camps, I say, one thats composed of screenwriters and filmmakers who want to make clear-sighted movies about what it is to be human, and the other composed of making movies that are fantastic, special-effectsdriven spectaculars like the ones coming out this summer ... Osher knows well the debate Im referencing. ... which side does Miramax come down on? I ask. You cant be a snob about these things, replies Osher thoughtfully. Making movies that are full of mindless pleasuresescapist and funyou cant attack them. They represent a perfectly acceptable way to go. Osher pauses for significance. But, basically, at Miramax were concerned with more serious-minded films, like you say, that are about the human condition. Thats cool, I say, signing off. Talk to you later, says Osher, unaware of the events by which hes edged a jaded screenwriter closer to a belief that a capacity for artistic merit still lives in Hollywoods corridors of power.

Edward Norton in American History X, written by David McKenna

Later, I phone Steve Tisch, the famous and prolific producer whose diverse filmography includes Risky Business, Forrest Gump and American History X. Tisch won an Academy Award for producing the monstrously popular Forrest Gump. Given the current popular Hollywood paradigm, who can resist admiring a man, attaining all that success and the ability to shake hands on any seven-figure deal, who instead rolls the dice on a dark killer of a film called American History X? Yes, concedes Tisch, responding to my question about whether the business interests of a few media giants were having an adverse effect on the kinds of movies being made. I think well see fewer humanly complex, original and risky films coming out of the majors. How much of this is due to the increased power and sophistication of their marketing divisions? I ask. A lot, says Tisch. They have a tremendous amount of power. Theres no questionespecially when youre talking about a movie north of $75 millionthat youre not going to pull the trigger without the blessing of the marketing division. A studio president can greenlight a film, but a marketing president can make it disappear. Burger King tie-ins are more attractive to a studio than John Malkovich. What is it with these marketing divisions? I ask Tisch. (Not one marketing president returned my calls.) Tisch chuckles.


Bob Osher resides at the summit of one of the most well-known and deeply admired movie production companies in the world, Miramax Pictures. Like my experience with Tisch, the fact the Miramaxs co-president of production pulled over from the high-speed racetrack he navigates to give this hitchhiking journalist a ride picked my spirits up immeasurably. My theory that studio executives are risk averseat least to taking a strangers questions seriouslywas taking a pummeling. What do you think about the intensifying climate of conglomeration in the movie industry? I ask Osher. Do you, at Miramax, feel pressured to become a big commodification machine? Serve up more cinematic Slurpees? Osher laughs, No, not at all. I mean, after all, I reply, youre owned by Disney.


Despite my fresh discoveries, there are plenty of young, off-beat talents, as well as industry veterans like Bill Mechanic, the former chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox, wholl still roll their eyes when asked if corporatization hasnt driven creative content into hiding in Hollywood. On PBS

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FRONTLINE titled The Monster That Ate Hollywood, Mechanic offers a perspective not unlike Peter Gubers. Yet theres an industry original riding in off the moviemaking horizon who offers new hope for us screenwriters who, for better or worse, see our daily duty in terms of creating works of lasting value. The guys name is Gregory Kahn. He and his partners Kerry Edelstein and Gavin Black form, of all blessed things, a market research consulting firm called filmBUZZ. Im talking to Gregory as he prepares to hop a plane bound for the Nantucket Film Festival. If youve written a killer script, says Gregory, and by hook or crook managed to raise the money to get it produced, the first thing you usually try to do is get it into one of the regional film festivals. Cool strategy, I chime in. What we do on the behalf of these often unknown filmmakers is help them understand who their target audience is. We help get their films seen. How do you do that? I ask. We partner with 15 different regional film festivalsand that number is growingand we poll the audiences when these films are screened. Poll them how? We ask them questions, like Howd you like the films plot? or What did you think of the films pacing? or Did you like the writing? Its quite a panorama of questions. We get into things like whether the viewer would pay to see it again, or would they buy it on DVD. [All] questions about the demographics [of the film]. If we see a deserving film and collect solid marketing information at the festival, then we can go to a distributor. Not the studios? I ask. Studio people rarely show up at regional festivals. Theyre dealing with huge films, huge ad campaigns, splashing their movies on televisionall over the place. Im not bashing them. Were just doing a different thing. So we present distributorssay, the people at New Yorker Films, Zeitgeist Films or Searchlightspotlighting a trend why these particular movies should be picked up. For instance, what kind of trend? I ask. That people still react to good content. Were both laughing. Its so obvious. So overlooked. So true, true, true. In an era thats so hyped and controlled by powerful marketing influences, here we are, coming back full circle. We believe

If youve written a killer script, and by hook or crook managed to raise the money to get it produced, the first thing you usually try to do is get it into one of the regional film festivals.
good content is a trend that can still win the day, he says. This is how we discovered a movie that cost about $5 million and had no buzz at all. We simply convinced the independent film community of the merits that a whole lot of regional festival-goers recognized as well. That film, Nowhere in Africa, was just nominated for an Academy Award. I listen to Gregory, thinking that in the film world, friendships truest measure is the amount of time fighting for someone who is unknown. We got behind that hidden gem, continues Gregory. [The film] was based on a phenomenal script, and we devised grassroots marketing strategiesthat is, selective promotional screenings, word-of-mouth, the Internetall the inexpensive ways we could devise to reach out to an intelligent, appreciative audience we knew this film would attract. The funniest thing about all of this is, you dont need to go to Cannes and hole up in some posh hotel with a bunch of famous movie stars. You dont have to travel to Berlin, or New York, or any of the other big festivals, he continues. Suddenly, it seems, the entire world of moviemaking is shimmering with a new benevolence. There are truly talented people, concludes Gregory. Theyre writing and producing scripts on a shoestring ... and you know what? I know hes smiling. Theyre all right in your own backyard.

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Robert Goethals, Minority Reports first participating writer, is currently producing his first feature and is a contributor to Cineaste magazine.