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New Mood for Show Business Bargaining? : Plan Posed to Expand Venue of Screenwriters

January 20, 1988|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

It has been almost a year since Steven Spielberg stood at the podium at the 1987 Academy Awards show and said it was time for film makers to rethink their priorities and reacquaint themselves with the value of words.

After a decade of special-effects addiction, Spielberg seemed to be swearing off the stuff and offering to lead other traveling-matte, rear-projection and animatronics junkies back to the land of plot, story and character.

It was an amazing moment, that Spielberg speech--amazing in that people seemed to find it so profound. Imagine C. L. Peck standing up at a builders' convention and reminding everyone not to forget the value of blueprints. Imagine Neil Armstrong telling some freshmen astronauts not to attempt to go up without rockets.

How did Hollywood forget that its products start with scripts? If you've seen one of Andy Warhol's early movies, or--worse yet--Norman Mailer's "Maidstone," you know that sitting through a movie made without a script is like sitting through a root canal without an anesthetic.

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are in the midst of their triennial contract negotiations and voices will be raised on both sides of the table before the current contract expires Feb. 29.

Key issues, if traditional patterns are followed, will focus on fee scales, residual schedules and benefits. Discrimination may be discussed, since a guild study last year laid out evidence of widespread industry discrimination against women, minority and older writers.

The most intriguing bargaining idea I heard has to do with creative rights. It was advanced at a guild board meeting last fall by screenwriter-author Harlan Ellison and the gist of it is something like this: Forget money, get the producers to agree to allow a film's screenwriter(s) on sets during production and consult with him/her/them on any script changes.

Those directors who don't write their own scripts may have just dropped their uppers into their bran flakes. And actors who pride themselves on their ability to "improve" dialogue may have just cracked their overnight face masks.

But if film making is truly a collaborative medium, which the Oscar winners assure us each year it is, what is so outrageous about Ellison's suggestion? In a less paranoid enterprise, the experts would be welcomed. If a ship's captain loses his way in a storm, does he check with the navigator, or does he stand on the bridge waiting for inspiration?

The analogy breaks down quickly because in the making of movies, everyone is a writer. What's the old phrase, "Six months ago, I cudn't even spel riter, now I am one?" Well, in Hollywood, it doesn't always take that long.

Film used to be a producer's medium. Then it became a director's medium. Now, it is more a producer-director's medium that is leaning toward becoming a credit hoarder's medium. The era of writer-director-producer, at least in film, is at hand.

In the New Perfect World, writers become directors to protect their scripts. In a recent interview, director John Milius said he considers himself a writer who only directs out of self-defense, to keep someone else from destroying what he has written. Francis Coppola has made the same claim.

Whenever they can, writers-turned-directors become producers to further protect their script by controlling production.

For most writers, it is the same Old Imperfect World, where their scripts are bought, rewritten and the credit is ultimately shared. They are often like surrogate mothers, their creations subject to the whims of people whose greatest and sometimes only assets are audacity and self-confidence.

Ellison's idea is more a cry in the wilderness than a practical suggestion. He says he is tired of sitting on the sidelines while hacks whittle away on his work. He says the Weak Writer system breeds bad writing and can discourage good writers from other media (playwrights, novelists) from even attempting to write for film and television.

Would having writers on the sets change anything? Even if management were to agree to have writers on the sets, directors would not be obligated to clear any changes with them. Writers would merely be there as advisers without portfolio.

Ellison says it would be a start, but he doesn't expect most directors to embrace the idea.

"Most of the directors who have genuine talent and ability like to have writers around," Ellison says. "It is the hacks who object. The less secure they are, the less they want the writer around, because the writer will point out they're doing it wrong."

Writers can, of course, attempt to negotiate consultation rights in their contracts, but it is safe to say that no major producers or directors will give a writer final cut, the right to sign off on the release version of a film.

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