Saturday 19 May 2018

Bruce Hodsdon on Authorship in the New Hollywood: The writer-director relationship - Independent production (part 1)

This is the latest part of Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood film-makers and film-making methods.The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

“Before 1926 according to official credits on films there were no screenwriters in Hollywood. The expression barely existed. The profession was fragmented into specialities. Assignments and credits were rationed out to deserving writers somewhat arbitrarily. There were sub-species of gag-writers, treatment writers, scenarists, adaptors, titlists.” (McGilligan). Publicity promoted and mythologised producers and directors. Until the mid teens there were no scripts for most films, almost all of one or two reels, just bits of paper and then enormous gaps to mainstream productions and the work of masters, DW Griffith, von Stroheim and DeMille.

Erich Von Stroheim
With the coming of sound came the consolidation of the studio system and with it new rules and speculation regarding screenplays. With sound also came “additional dialogue” and with it “talk experts” from the East. In the forties in their stead came playwrights, journalists and a range of other wordsmiths from dime novelists and advertising copywriters to prominent authors and refugees from radio.

“The shooting script gained supremacy over the original story, widening the gulf between the initial inspiration and the final product. There developed a crucial difference between the writer of the story and the writer of the script – not always one and the same person.”. (McGilligan) The shooting script not only broke down the story and systematised continuity but could also dictate how and what was to be shot. All budgeting and scheduling came down to the shooting script which is where the money men came in and the writers were, typically, left behind.

“In the early sound era, writers were low on the studio totem pole. Novelists were excluded from adapting from their own titles. Scenarists were banished from the sets of films they had written. Impersonal or hackneyed genre assignments were doled out as a form of punishment. Unbeknownst to each other, writers worked on multiple or alternative versions of the same script.”  (McGilligan) The credits system was corrupted. Marathon working hours were a requisite. Writers at some studios had to punch the time clock.

A feature film needs a screenplay which only comes alive when it is translated into a film orchestrated by the director. On the question of authorship there will always be some ambiguity especially if the director is not also the principal author of the screenplay. In classical Hollywood the system based on fairly strict demarcation of functions made it more difficult for this to occur. The question of “who is the author of a fictional feature film in Hollywood?” was further obscured by a rule agreed by producers with the newly empowered Screenwriters Guild (SWG) in 1941.

Some system of classification and evaluation was/is needed to assess the contribution of the screenwriter to balance what anti-auteurists dismiss as the myth of the omnipotent director. It assumed relatively easy acceptance because the extent of a separate screenwriter's contribution is often difficult to ascertain, even more so under the studio system in which fairly strict division of labour was imposed on an essentially collaborative process (1).

The SWG set what is widely regarded as a rule that is ridiculous in its rigidity in disallowing any screenplay credit to a director who has not contributed at least fifty per cent of the dialogue which of itself is only an element, albeit a central  one, of the final screenplay– “ridiculous” opines Richard Corliss, “because it permits auteur critics to infer that their favourite directors contributed, say, 49 per cent.” The singular focus on dialogue in SWG's credit qualification reflected the attempt by writers to improve their lowly position on the studio totem pole.  The agreement provided the base for the subsequent critical positioning of the director as auteur. It gave all directors the right to participate in casting, script development, editing (the right to 'a director's cut').

A film is often described by a critic in terms of theme and narrative as if the director is the equivalent of a novelist. In Europe the converse applies and seems to produce no greater clarity, the director receiving a screenplay credit whether he or she wrote anything or not which is nevertheless a more accurate acknowledgement of the director's role. Leading directors in Europe are usually credited as sole authors of screenplays.  When sharing the credit it is most often with a frequent collaborator.

(Some of) The Hollywood Ten
In the 50s numbers of screenwriting credits dwindled from the peak wartime and early postwar years. The blacklist disprop-ortionately injured screenwriters. Eight of the Hollywood Ten were writers. By 1959 the contract writer had become an endangered species. Many of the studios had ceased to make B pictures.

With the breakdown of the contract system it became more acceptable, even vital, to accept scripts from outside the studio radius of Hollywood. The 60s screenwriters “were the first genuinely bicoastal generation.” This was not so good for the regular employment of writers under contract that had been part and parcel of the system.  Freelancing became much more common.
Robert Towne
In the seventies Robert Towne, a skilled script doctor, delivered screenplays for The Last Detail, Shampoo and Chinatown. He later directed (Personal Best) though not on a career path comparable to Paul Schrader as a writer-director following his early screenplay successes. Paul Schrader collaborated with his brother Leonard on The Yakuza, written on spec then subject to a bidding war.  His screenplay for Taxi Driver, written in ten days was taken up by Martin Scorsese for $325,000 (the same record amount that was paid to William Goldman for Butch Cassidy). Certain writers like novelist Joe Eszterhas, whose adeptly written commercial successes created high demand for his scripts, peaked with the selling of his original, Basic Instinct, for a runaway new record of $3 million.

Paul Schrader
But these were standout individual successes. Industry changes imposed by tech-nological developments resulted in a boom and bust in the production and diversity of feature films in the mid-late eighties and major industry restructuring and realignment through the 80s, 90s and beyond.

The decade most noted for Hollywood filmmaker innovation - the years of the so-called New Hollywood in the mid 70s - was reined in by the box office bonanza of Jaws andStarWarsreasserting the conservatism inherent in the big budget blockbuster mode, the perceived overreach in the failure of a number of new Hollywood films, and the aftermath of the unchecked director's indulgence of Heaven's Gate at the end of the decade.

McGilligan comments that “some of the worst horror stories for screenwriters come in the 70s and 80s.” He suggests that “by contrast the 60s appear almost idyllic.” While minimums and conditions were greatly improved over the past and writers were in a stronger position than ever before, the 'new boy' network was no more sympathetic to writers than the studios they replaced. The proliferation of indie production companies brought with it the proliferation of writer-director credits that came with indie territory, but also more often focussed on making mainstream features.

The term “independent” was always difficult to pin down and has become increasingly so. It could be said that the only truly independent film is personal and self-financed, or one financed with no strings attached other than that circumscribed by the limitations of the budget.  For my purposes here an independent film is one generally produced in relative freedom from the constraints of a 'blockbuster budget' outside the major Hollywood film companies which potentially adds to the range of subject and onscreen expression within the purview of what is loosely referred to as an 'art cinema'. A film is more favourably placed to meet the criterion if there is a synthesis in the person of a writer-director of the key creative functions of story selection, screenplay and direction. Perhaps it is the spirit of the film - how it challenges norms in form and content - rather than the size of the budget that should be the main determinant.

In industry terms a film has been pronounced “independent” when produceddirectly or indirectlyby the classics division of one of the majors operating in relative freedom from commercial dictates by the parent studio. Peter Biskind has suggested that “there's a kind of independent aesthetic that really distinguishes these films from your full blown Spider-Man 2.”

 Independents have also been increasingly sourcing financing from European sources.

David O. Selznick
In classical Hollywood David O Selznick and Sam Goldwyn were the highest profile independent producers in a time when independent production companies were relatively few. They began to proliferate during the war and the succeeding decades. Now numbering in the thousands, the majority of these companies seemed to have been formed over the years to produce only one or two films.

At the other end of the spectrum “mini-major”production companies such as Carolco, Cannon and Dino De Laurentis (DEG) in the eighties and early nineties operated on a scale of budgeting for individual productions comparable to the majors but as separate entities in initiating and financing feature films and therefore nominally qualifying as independent.

Independent producers were, and continue to be, generally dependent on the majors or mini majors for wider release of individual films through the main cinema chains. Many do not find distribution and go straight to cable and video release.

The emergence of home video in the 80s and DVD in the 90s created important new opportunities for the production and distribution of independent film. Into the new millennium ancillary markets soon overtook theatrical release as a major source of revenue, but there have been relatively few gains for independents in mainstream theatrical release.  Theatrical release remains  important in the creating a profile for recognition by a potential online audience increasingly engaged by long form tv drama and ready access to online film libraries. It may, however, become a little easier for independents to raise funding for production based on the greater distribution opportunities in these new markets.

David O. Russell
Exceptions to relative marginalisation of films independent in content and innovative in form are those that succeeded in attracting grosses comparable to mainstream successes, films by Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, David O Russell and David Chazelle, for example. Other individual films like Lost in TranslationBefore Midnight,El Mariarchi, ClerksLovely and AmazingEternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Manchester by the Sea have achieved 'sleeper' success more profitably yielding above average returns on much lower than blockbuster budgets.  

While providing an entry point for many would be filmmakers, to be highlighted in the listing of indie directors in part 2 of this chapter, there are filmmakers whose work cannot be contained by the halfway house of 'art house' labelling,  - Gregg Araki, Abel Ferrara, Kevin Smith, Jim Jarmusch, Larry Clark, Todd Solondz, Alison Anders, Kelly Reichardt, et al. If the overall market share for independent production remains relatively marginalised, that is not a measure of the contributions of many indie filmmakers to the vitality of the culture. The growth in the proportion of writer-director numbers is summarised in the figures below:

      Credited writer-directors account for between 15-20% of the 221 directors selected by Andrew Sarris for The American Cinema 1929-68.
      Of the 34 directors in the proposed classical canon (list 1), 12 (35%) are credited writers on their films.
      Of the 18 directors in the proposed post classical canon (list 4), 15 (83%) are credited writers on their films.
      Of the 54 directors in the post classical“mainstream” sample (list 5), 33 (61%) are credited writer-directors.
•      90% of the 80 directors in the “indie”sample (list 6) are credited writer-directors on all or most of their films

Jim Jarmusch
Major changes in technology have been accompanied by a significant change in film production on the creative side - the increasing merging of the director and writer functions. As the above summary suggests, the upward trend evident in the writer-director credits on feature films has been spread across the spectrum. So far this seems to have been little commented upon or even noticed. It would seem to relate to the restructuring of the industry involving the decentralisation of production management reflected in the proliferation of production companies, a postwar phenomenon that has accelerated since the sixties (2). This has resulted in a greater range of films being produced in an increasingly fragmented market.

As noted above, the sharp rise in the number of independent production companies in the mid-eighties was a direct result of the increase in demand for product in ancillary markets such as cable and home video for a couple of years creating a severe shortfall in the supply of new mainstream product.

Peter Biskind observed, at the time of the release of his book (see below) more than a decade ago, that independent film in the eighties was negatively defined as “everything or anything that a Hollywood film was not. So if a Hollywood film was a narrative film that stressed action and special effects, an independent film was a film that stressed script and character. Hollywood made movies, independents made films. Hollywood movies were directed by directors (more often they are now writer-directors), people who made independent films were filmmakers” (almost invariably writer-directors). Hollywood films were/are high concept, expensive and over produced, independent films were/are in some degree (and can be productively) underproduced, inexpensive, low concept and more difficult to describe.

Todd Solondz
“In the 90s,” Biskind suggested “the distinctions between independent films and Hollywood films begins to blur” so that at the margins it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell. Hence a legacy of the 90s is the concept of the “Indiewood film...films that exist where “independent” has always been a kind of glass-half-empty-glass-half-full world...halfway between the traditional Hollywood movie and the...independent film.”In contrast to the relatively few, mainly genre bound independents in classical Hollywood, the differences between films at each end of the spectrum are now reassuringly much wider - between say a mainstream big budget genre film often saturated with CGI and those low budget films which are innovative formally and/or thematically, filmed and post produced digitally.  If this reflects the democratisation of the means of production as a result of the economies, it is also connected with the proliferation of platforms for distribution.

1.  The IMDb database is the most accessible guide to the extent of a director's contribution to the screenplay. Apart from indicating a shared contribution there are a range of attributions including story, adaptation, writer (an acknowledgment of a contribution to bothstory and screenplay) or various uncredited contributions presumably based on available production information. The only clear confirmation on the authorship of an individual film is a writer-director credit confirming that the director is also the principal author of the screenplay. In addition to database information and in the absence of published researched filmographies, a more complete picture can then only be pieced together from not always reliable anecdotal accounts of the director, writer or other key participants in the film combined with critical familiarity with the director's other work.  

2.  The share of domestic box office receipts is currently split about 80-20 between the six major production-distribution companies and the rest or close to 90-10 with the addition of the mini-major, Lionsgate. The six majors also account for more than three-quarters of wide theatrical releases of films through the theatre chains. The average box office gross per title released by the majors in 2017 was in excess of $100m. per title, the box office receipts for the rest (the more successful depending on the majors for distribution) is  less than one third of that per title. Many go straight to cable. Only a small number of films by a few filmmakers on the indie list - Tarantino, Soderbergh, Gondry, Chazelle, Sofia Coppola, Aronofsky - would have had wide releases in recent years. More than half the filmmakers on the indie list received a significant return against budget for films from limited 'art house' release, if not comparable to a peak example of independent success, Clerks(Kevin Smith), which grossed $3.2m domestically on a production cost of $28,000. Source: The Numbers

Main Sources: Pat McGilligan Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters in Hollywood's Golden Age 1986; Marc Norman What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting 2008; Bordwell, Staiger, Thompson The Classical Hollywood Cinema 1985 Part 5, Janet Staiger; Richard Corliss Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema 1974; Peter Biskind Down and Dirty Pictures,Miramax Sundance & the Rise of Independent Film 2004

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