The Role of the Screenwriter Today

You may think that today’s topic concerns the plight of the few hundred or so writers, mostly in the United States, who earn their livelihood writing screenplays and their struggle for the recognition they so rightly deserve.  Not at All!    As far as today’s post is concerned, they can cry all the way to the bank!  For what I really want to discuss today is the aspiring screenwriter and his struggle to discover whether or not he has any role at all.

When I lived in New York several years ago and attempted to launch a career as a screenwriter, I used to be jealous of my friends who were artists, actors and playwrights.  I was jealous of them because they could pursue their art with little or no financial success.  A painter can always paint; the cost of the materials is not great.  And there is always some place to exhibit his or her work.  How exhilarating it is to have a show opening, even if most of the attendees are friends and relatives and nothing is sold.  And as for actors, there are always unpaid showcases where they can exhibit their talent:  never forget that an actor lives to act.   Then there are the playwrights.  For them there is always some small non-profit theater group eager to perform their plays, especially if they are one-act plays with only two or three characters.  But for the aspiring screenwriter, it is a totally different story.  Because of the tremendous cost of the production and distribution of motion pictures, even for the most low budget ones, realization of the aspiring screenwriter’s work through his own efforts is usually totally out of the question.  Regrettably , the plain truth is that  a screenwriter without a produced film is like a musician without an instrument.  Usually the aspiring screenwriter will write a dozen or so screenplays—if that many– on speculation.  If nothing happens with them, which generally is the case, the aspiring screenwriter usually gives up and moves on to some other form of writing where the odds are not so stacked against him.

Yes, it is a rather bleak picture that I have painted for the aspiring screenwriter.  But then, a few weeks ago, I began to think that perhaps there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.  It suddenly dawned upon me that right in the palm of your hand, within your smartphone, there is more technology than was available to Jean Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer for their early films!     Just what do I mean?  Of course, I am not suggesting that someone use a smartphone to make a feature film—although that is not impossible.  But for the cost of a smartphone or less you could conceivably buy a video camera/recorder that is adequate for the task.  Some of you who read an earlier post of mine in which I advocated for screenwriters being allowed to be just screenwriters may see a contradiction here.  Not necessarily so, because unfortunately, the screenwriter, as with anyone else seeking to get their foot into the door of the film industry, must often take things into his own hands, from submitting his script to a major actor ,to getting all or some of the financing for his project.  But let us return to the “smartphone” analogy.  Just what would this entail?

The first thing that would probably come to mind is the concept of “thinking small.”  Of course, we are not talking about a film with a cast of thousands or multiple car crashes and explosions.  But remember the old adage “write about what you know?”  So what would an aspiring screenwriter most likely know about?  The same thing that Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer knew:  a story about a guy, a girl and an apartment—remember Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s.  And if the story takes place in New York, there most likely will be a couple of scenes in a coffee house; in London, a pub; and in Paris ,a sidewalk café.  These are locations that should cost you little or no money to find.  What about actors?  Surely they should cost you some money to obtain.  Perhaps—but maybe not as much as you think.  The American screen and television actors union has, in the past, been very accommodating in allowing their members to appear in low budget and student films for little or no payment at all (of course, if the film makes money you will have to pay them their minimum rate).  But what if you live somewhere other than the major American cities where most professional actors live and work.  Well, there are always amateur actors; for amateur acting groups can be found in almost every community—and many of them are quite good.

Alright, now that you have found your actors, what about the crew?  No problem, because with the proliferation of film and television production programs throughout the United States (and the world), volunteers should readily be available.  But what about the director?  Well, naturally you, the screenwriter, would be the first choice: who else knows the story and the characters better?  However, if this still seems like too daunting a proposition, I am sure that a volunteer can readily be found.

But if you do produce your own film (video), what do you do with it?  How do you get it seen, distributed?  Why, on the internet, of course.  There are numerous venues for screening films/videos on the internet; and it is very likely that more people will see it there than at the second and third tier film festivals where most first time directors’ independent films wind up.

Isn’t that really setting your sights too low? you might ask.  Not necessarily.  Do not forget that the highly successful film Meet the Parents (2000) was first produced as a very low budget film with unknown actors.  A major American studio saw it, bought the rights and then remade it as a big budgeted film with major actors.

Would I do something like this?  Probably not.  Should you?  Well, that depends—that is, depends on you.  But whatever you decide, it may no longer be accurate for the aspiring screenwriter to say that whether or not he has a career to pursue is dependent on the decisions of others.

Update – July 2015:

I have recently read about filmmakers who have indeed used their I-phone to create their films and have had them screened at the Sundance Film Festival.  One filmmaker stated that he preferred using an I-phone because the non-actors that he employed were more familiar with it and thus was less intrusive than more traditional filmmaking equipment.  I guess that my post was not as radical as I thought when I first posted it.

2 thoughts on “The Role of the Screenwriter Today

  1. …Excellent blog based on your book of the same name! I recently read an interview the other day with a young filmmaker whose works primarily with up -and-coming bands to produce music videos. These are low-budget ventures , as you can imagine; he explains that he is using his HD iphone (mounted on a tripod) to augment two video cameras. This offers him a third axis, and keeps his equipment expenses lower. This means the struggling bands can better afford to hire him. The music video accompanying the article was quite nice, and honestly, I couldn’t identify which film was shot with the iphone. Further, the cinematography and montage was quite sophisticated. The overall effect was quite professional. I note that this is not the best example to fit your thesis, with its lack of a script or screenwriter.

    Alors… I am enjoying your book — a real treasure that I found recently in a used book store in the Latin quarter of Paris. Unlike many ‘film books’ from the 70s, yours stands the test of time. Is it still in print? If not, you should find a publisher to re-issue it. There is a new audience for the insight you offer. Regarding your post, Yes, and we should be hoping for an emergent ‘new’ Nouvelle Vague-like movement. The only impediment for the young filmmaker today would be lack of imagination. In the spring, I attended the opening of the newly restored Cleo 5 à 7 at the Beaux Arts in Brussels. Agnes Varda spoke afterwards…interesting to hear her reflect on the context of their time, in which she and her friends were making the NV films; as you know, the circle is now complete.

  2. Thank you for your interest and comment. New technology and new methods of financing has expanded the playing field for all media, not just film. And you are certainly right in pointing out that the only thing keeping people from making films and finding an audience for them is lack of imagination. Regrettably, my book “The Screenplay as Literature” is out of print in the United States, although it might still be in print in other countries. However, used copies can be bought on the internet; furthermore, it is availlable in most university libraries.

    Regards,

    Douglas Garrett Winston

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