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Screenwriters' Lot Can Be Hit or Miss

Most say their jobs are fun, despite toiling in an industry they say is rife with plagiarism and ageism, stupidity and deceit.


Scratch a screenwriter and you get . . . a whine.

Not just about the injury you've inflicted, the latest in a long series of wounds and indignities the writer has suffered.

It's the fact that you felt free to inflict said injury; surely, you wouldn't walk up to an actor or a director or a producer or anyone important and start digging away.

But many screenwriters have a secret. Despite the abuse they suffer, despite all the thwarted visions and stolen ideas and boneheaded executives they endure, many do think their jobs are, if not glamorous, at least kind of fun.

Making a living by helping to make movies is pretty cool, said Edward Solomon, whose credits include "Men in Black," the "Bill & Ted" movies and the current "What Planet Are You From?"

"I like the hours, except when you're on deadline. I like a lot of the people I meet," Solomon said in an e-mail interview from France, where he was attending a writing conference. "I like the traveling. I like making things up and then seeing them realized."

The best moments, however, are the private ones: the subtle connections made between scenes that the audience may never notice. The personal pride in learning a new writing technique. "The quiet happiness," as Solomon put it, "that comes from providing a structure to your fantasies and knowing . . . it may actually mean something to somebody."

All that said, being a screenwriter can be more frustrating and demoralizing and difficult than the writers ever dreamed.

Just getting a foothold in the industry is tough. Studios, fearful of lawsuits, generally refuse to read unsolicited scripts. Without experience, getting the attention of an agent or executive is tough. And once they do get "the meeting" with a film company executive, screenwriters often find a stunning lack of creativity, an astounding deficit of intelligence--or both.

"I mentioned that something was Kafkaesque and [the executive] didn't know what that meant," said one former screenwriter, who asked to remain anonymous. "When I explained that it was like the writer Kafka, he [the executive] said, 'Well, what has he written lately?' "

Hollywood is also notoriously clubby. People want to work with their friends, and resist attempts by union committees or minority activists to inject more diversity.

"What you do is you go to the people you know, the people you have fun with," said Ann Marcus, a 40-year screenwriting veteran who got her start writing daytime dramas.

Some writers are not prepared for the deception in Hollywood, which seems to reward character traits reviled in most other parts of the world. Pushiness, pretense, phoniness and name-dropping are key; everything is about power, and who knows whom, and who's hot, or not. Executives, especially, are valued largely for their relationships with the "talent"--the actors, writers and directors who do the actual work.

"It's dreadful, because it means that there is no interpersonal exchange which is not without hidden agendas," one working screenwriter said. On the other hand, "if you think those people actually like you for 'who you are,' you deserve to be dumped as soon as you write something unpopular."

Then there's ageism.

"Felicity" television writer Riley Weston, who had claimed to be 19, pointed to ageism when unmasked as the thirtysomething writer she actually was. A Writers Guild survey in 1998 found she wasn't making that up--job opportunities for writers did seem to erode with age. Although seven in 10 writers under 30 were working, fewer than one in three in their 50s had paying jobs in 1997. Just 10 years earlier, nearly half of those in their 50s were employed. Like most older screenwriters, Marcus has noticed the change.

"I'm not going to say the industry isn't asking for younger and younger people to staff younger and younger shows, because it's true," Marcus said.

Idea theft also seems to be rampant.

Forget the high-profile plagiarism lawsuits in which aggrieved writers or would-be writers claim that a studio ripped off their novel. Many of these cases are in fact settled to avoid controversy that can tank a film.

But the vast majority of theft appears to go unreported. Some screenwriters say it's commonplace to make a seemingly unsuccessful pitch only to see their ideas show up--uncredited of course--under someone else's name. Only the most powerful writers--or those with powerful agents--dare complain.

"The idea is, if you don't play along, you'll never work in this town again," the former screenwriter said.

The illusion that dies hardest, however, is the notion that once they have sold an idea or script that they have any control over what happens. A black comedy becomes a two-hanky romance. An action adventure becomes a vehicle for the Olsen twins.

Even when all goes well, and the story faintly resembles the writer's original idea, movies and television are a collaborative process in which producers, directors, studios and even actors have far more power than a writer's mere words.

"Screenwriting is not the means of self-expression that, ignorantly, I thought it would be when I started out," Solomon said. "No matter how long and hard you worked on a film . . . it is not solely yours. And, of course, more and more, there's the feeling that it never was."

Still, writers such as Marcus feel a little sorry for people who hate their jobs. She can't imagine any job she would enjoy more.

"It's fun, God, it's fun, if you're successful," Marcus said.

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