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Memo to Screenwriters #2: Like E.L. James, You Can Change the Game

Memo to Screenwriters #2: Like E.L. James, You Can Change the Game

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan emphasized the value of
message and the medium the message uses over its creator. This idea flies in
the face of the modern era’s printed book as the ultimate expression of the writer,
who toiled in glorified isolation as the big publishing house distributed it
magically across the universe.  McLuhan
went on to predict a wireless world, where all messages are accessed instantly
to and from a collective brain–what we now call mobile media.

Ever since authors shed the fantasy of a big publishing house
model, many midlist and novice writers have opted to write speculative books delivered to reading
tablets–print on demand–once they realized that they had the distinct
advantage of having a product they solely owned that could be bought directly
online. Now writers manage not only all creative decisions but also their own
metadata, including ISBN number and price. 

The most successful among them, “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E.L.
James, strategized with aggressive genre mastery. She identified and directly
engaged with present and future readers in social media hangouts. She insured that the upload to Amazon, iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Sony Reader
could truly pay off. Big publishing houses had long overlooked such popular
fiction genres as romance and science fiction. Now big houses along with
the public (and movie studios), scout for bestselling indie authors.

Which
prompts the question: what can screenwriters learn from this?

Flashback: Hollywood, circa 2001. Gutenberg almost left the
building. Talent agencies began to scan screenplays into computers, making obsolete their script library
(that also served production and casting). This was first done in the
name of efficiency to save storage space. Printed copies went out as usual,
delivered by hand. Then, after reliable email attachments came into general
use, clients’ revised drafts could be distributed with an easy click. 

But
issues of control arose when it came to spec scripts. Reverting to type, the
market marched backwards by sending sealed hard copies to buyers’ homes after
hours and/or watermarking screenplays (so that pirated copies could be traced
to a leaker) to accommodate time-sensitive, high stakes spec submissions. No
thanks to the collective brain, many scripts were negatively profiled on the net via the tracking boards, and dismissed almost immediately. Though the
market was fading, specs still held strong as an essential career strategy. 

Truth is, the shark, like Oprah’s couch, had been thoroughly jumped.
Around 2008, a certain major studio dropped the compulsory rain or shine
weekend read. I recall a stunned colleague announcing at a staff meeting,
“They’ve decided from now on to be more selective.”

It never occurred to anyone to heed McLuhan’s prediction of
electronic (vs. physical) delivery as its own high-impact message by posting a
script on a private site with a password. Or trying the unheard of idea of
posting a property MLS style with specs and stats that a prospective buyer’s
gut could go with or without. First launched in
email in 2004 as a free annual development survey, Franklin Leonard’s The Black List now offers a
gated community tour for producers, directors and executives eager to identify
the status of popular scripts idling in studio development or possibly
overlooked (or looked over) gems.
 

A few weeks ago, the WGAW sanctioned use of the site solely
devoted to promoting professional screenwriters’ work, searchable not only by
name and title but by detailed genre, logline, budget and attachments as well
as rated by reviewers. In the shadow of crashing tentpoles, opportunity has
never knocked louder. Yet, how often have screenwriters solely described their
work as a “calling card” that speaks for itself? By insisting on a virtual
blind taste test, the writer’s identity elicits little more detail than a name
followed by the question of who their agent is. Without a game a name is just a
name.

Contrast that with what happens when a book is
enthusiastically recommended to anyone. The question of “who wrote it?” paints
a creative persona with details about gender, race, nationality, childhood,
life story, life span, regional experience, class, politics. Expressed
appreciation might extend to the book’s authentic atmosphere crafted by a
mastery of language, character, genre cred, ear for dialogue, and clarity of
message that all together earn that writer the reputation for ability to dial
directly into universal truths.

Any kind of writer — dead and buried — or alive and
writing, can “like” McLuhan, “friend” Gutenberg and become easy to discover via
personal websites, genre driven blogs, mashup videos and show up on you-name-it
social media to attract not only readers but loyal admirers. Why not
screenwriters?

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Comments

Frank South

Terrific piece, Nancy. Honest and perceptive – and most important, encouraging to writers of all experience levels. Thanks.

Deborah Simmrin

Very interesting piece, Nancy. And, a taste of what will come …

Richard Wesley

Great article, Nancy. Indeed, the handwriting has been on the wall for quite sometime as far as being a freelance screenwriter is concerned. We are currently in a "brave new world" where, as you have pointed out, technology is giving individual artists far greater control over the work they create. But, for me, the key is not so much creative control, but copyright control and intellectual property rights. Freelance screenwriters are hired by a studio or independent producers to write a property and they are paid for the delivery of that service. They will never own it. A screenwriter can also write an original property all his or her own, but in order to see it onscreen he or she will likely have to sell the rights to a studio or independent company. If screenwriters are going to "change the market," then perpetual or partial ownership of the screenplay is essential. The most powerful screenwriters will be the individuals who successfully figure out the business model that allows them to retain their copyrights on original screenplays in the same way recording artists are now able to retain their master recordings and publishing rights. But, I suspect that, even under the best circumstances, the screenwriters most likely to take advantage of that kind of situation will be those individuals willing to be hyphenates.

Cindra

Nancy, I think you are brilliant!

Alexandra Leh

Thanks, Nancy, for so clearly articulating this productive perspective on the new paradigm. When the television network laid me off in 2002, I began writing a blog (this was before they were ubiquitous) and quickly discovered what an effective calling card it was — not to mention the fact that it kept up my writing chops between freelance gigs. Within two months of launching the blog, I had a script rewrite and a book project…without (due respect) representation. I've had a lit agent. But in the past 11 years, I've gotten most writing and producing projects on my own — and I couldn't do it without taking full advantage of technology.

Y. Buggs

Very empowering and inspirational! You have delivered an eye opening perspective – that if fully digested and embraced by screen writers, could be a think outside of the box "career changer / career maker." Thank you Nancy for some great food for thought!

Zorianna Kit

Very insightful. Writers don't have to be low on the Hollywood totem pole anymore (as comedically depicted in "Bowfinger). The electronic age, including social media, are effective tools in reclaiming their rightful spot.

Julia Chasman

Great piece Nancy — thank-you!!

mwblock

Well done, Nancy,

Actually, nothing has changed. A sellable screenplay (that people want to make into a movie) changes from day-to-day. Getting buyers to read them is always a problem. Paper, electronic, iPad, whatever. Fashion. Taste. Originality. Perceived value. The media is not the message, it's the market.

Courtney

Great piece, Nancy. Writers absolutely need to open their eyes and shake off their dependency on the same old narrow pathways. The message sent by Ted Hope's new filmmaker labs,in name alone-A2E (Artist to Entrepreneur) should speak volumes to everyone in the industry, regardless of their industry role: Figure out how to harness the power of the Internet to become your own captain, to reach the largest number of facilitators receptive to what you do. Synergy takes on a wild new meaning. There should be no limit for those with imagination and who has more of that than writers?? Thanks for opening the debate.

Jim

A thought-provoking overview of today's opportunities and challenges. Well done!

Pete

Very accurate. The idea of being a gatekeeper and arbiter of good taste is what keeps many people in the positions they hold, but ultimately their taste will be judged by a public they very well may not be in touch with. I'm a huge fan of artists cutting out the middle man, while still maintaining a commitment to excellence and not just doing something because they "can".

Great read.

Richard Toscan

The film industry has a lot it could learn from fiction/nonfiction publishing as that's been affected by the internet and it would probably be better for everyone if the WGA and the industry figured this out before Amazon gets around to churning the current screenwriting game plan. In all of this, I think we need to set aside the world of mega-blockbusters which will all be written to order rather than from spec scripts. But for relationship films, ease of access by both screenwriters and studios/readers could be a notable game changer. Nancy's right about how much more we can easily learn about novelists (from the traditional houses or self-published) compared to screenwriters. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude that we don't need to know any more than the screenwriter's name (if even that) continues to be a reflection of the ultimate lack of value the industry places on the writer.

Janet

Smart and right! This is a brave new world of opportunity for the artist/entrepreneur, to make his/her career happen. Digital revolution has created new opportunities and access for everyone— screenwriters included. BLACKLIST is a Godsend to emerging talent. Thanks, Nancy, for your sharing you insight and advise.

Marc V.

What a great analysis of how technology is reinventing publishing. The emphasis in the media is all about music and movies but the written word, from novels to screenplays, is also being "disintermediated" in slow motion. Thanks for this.

William Martin

Every writer -novelist or screenwriter(and I've been both) -has to to everything he or she can to drive a tentpole into the sand. That means having a web site and creating an identity. In the world of novel writing, plenty of writers brand themselves in one way or another. Screenwriters can do the same thing. Start with that web site. Do the Facebook bit, too, because if we don't adapt in these businesses today, we will not be in them tomorrow. But remember, folks, that the first job is to write. Great article, Nancy. Right on the nose.

Jana

I actually would go one step further. I think this is an incredibly exciting time for writers of all ilk. No longer do they have to wait for permission to be seen/heard, they can give themselves the permission to seize control of their message and promote it to the entire world. All it takes is belief in your work, and a wifi connection. Thanks for being a champion of the brave new world, Nancy.

Cotty

Nancy, I might question whether producers, execs or agents who read scripts for purposes and transactions of their own actually give a shit who the writer is ("gender, race, nationality, childhood, life story, life span, regional experience, class, politics" etc.). Especially these days when story and character take a back seat in the commercial universe of branded entertainment experiences masquerading as movies, the ability uniquely and humanly to express universal truths is more honored in its absence. Of course, that's what actors like, may heaven love them, and actors get movies financed! One thing that's certainly true, you really write clean prose.

Richard

Couldn't agree more

Richard

Couldn't agree more

Jan

excellent insight. thanks for sharing!

Polly Johnsen

Great insight! Just as Soderbergh asked the question of the high cost of marketing movies in his speech at SFFF, screenwriters should be thinking about how to market themselves most effectively. These are the kind of conversations we should all be having!

Chi-Li W.

Excellent article Nancy! Very astute. More please.

Linda Venis

Terrific advice, Nancy–your UCLA Extension Writers' Program students are super-lucky to get a treasure trove of this kind of insight!

Jamie Wolf

Excellent points, and useful information!

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