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Read Any Good Movies Lately?

December 18, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Pretty much all of the big commercial films being released by major studios these days have a certain written-by-chimps-locked-in-a-room-with-a-laptop-quality," claimed a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly. "Story lines veer in nonsensical directions, dialogue is dim or dopey, [and] characters have the heft of balsa wood."

Even amid all this, writers are going for respect, and a magazine is regularly publishing their screenplays. It's a new twist in perhaps Hollywood's most common occupation, screenwriting.

No, we're not talking about magazines that detail the craft and business of screenwriting, such as Script, Fade In, Screenwriter Quarterly and Written By, the last put out by the Writers Guild of America, West. Rather, we're talking about a glossy that publishes actual screenplays, four per issue, issue after issue. Its name: Scenario, the Magazine of Screenwriting Art.

Its pages are also adorned with full-page graphic illustrations that seek to capture the writer's vision of the script. And here's the shocking part: The screenplays do not necessarily correspond with what you may remember seeing on screen. Not at all.

Rather, the screenplays on its pages are the writer's favorite version, the one put down before the star asked for the rewrites to hog the best lines. The one before the directors, producers, studio heads, accountants, special effects people and other extra-literary types put their fingers in the pie.

Thus, says managing director Jeffrey Altshuler, "There are huge differences between the screenplays for, say, 'Groundhog Day' and 'Nashville,' and the final films. And by reading the original screenplays, you can see where the writer and the others collaborated and where they went apart."

Already, the New York-based quarterly, which turns 2 this month, has 10,000 subscribers and sells 4,000 more issues on newsstands, Altshuler says. Not that the magazine, published by RC Publications, hasn't run into its share of start-up problems. Because of distribution difficulties, it's still much easier to get it by subscription than on the newsstand. And at $59.95 per year (it's $20 per issue), it is still on the expensive side.

Nevertheless, Frank Pierson, former president of the Writers Guild of America, West, and writer of "Cat Ballou," "Cool Hand Luke" and HBO's Emmy-winning "Truman," is enthusiastic about the venture. So enthusiastic that he joined about 20 other screenwriters--including Horton Foote, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, John Singleton, Richard Price, Joan Tewkesbury and Robert Towne--in lending their names to the magazine's board of advisors.

Before Scenario, budding screenwriters trying to grasp the intricacies of screenwriting largely depended on "a whole underground economy of pirated screenplays," Pierson explained. "They hung around on sets and stole from the studios," giving birth to rivers of illicitly reproduced scripts, which were often sold under the counter in Hollywood's innumerable copy shops.

Insiders also would exchange scripts with one another, say my "Rocky" for your "Chinatown." And while the copy shops profited, and still do, the writers and copyright holders never got compensated. At the same time, it was virtually impossible for any would-be screenwriter to legitimately get his hands on the screenplay.

Then came the books containing individual screenplays. One of the first was William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade" (Warner Books, 1983), a bestseller on the vagaries of Hollywood, whose paperback version also contained the script to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Dozens of similar books followed. Finally, Scenario proposed--on an ongoing basis--to buy the rights and publish an entire range of screenplays, making the formerly illicit, licit.

Beyond your next-door neighbor, aunt, taxi driver and boss in New York or Los Angeles, who all seem to be writing a screenplay, the most promising audience includes the nearly quarter-million communications students in colleges across the country. Altshuler wants to give these young innocents a habit they can't break.

And yet, even he admits, the goods aren't what they used to be. "The average blockbuster is devoid of plot," special effects often taking the place of good writing, he said.

Thus, he said, " 'Independence Day' would not translate well onto the page. In the early days, American films like 'Casablanca' set a cultural standard. But now, our scripts are written by committee. They no longer contain one vision; instead they are the vision of the stockholders' meeting.

"Whereas old filmmakers told stories, a big studio film now is a package, with the filmmakers emphasizing the marketing approach versus the creative approach," he said, echoing Entertainment Weekly. "We hope to elevate the writer. We want to remind people that there are certain basics in storytelling, and to help them learn it."

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