Last spring, during the frenzied week of the Cannes International Film Festival, screenwriter John Richards was on his way to a party celebrating the premiere of "Nurse Betty."
The movie had received a 10-minute standing ovation, and later that week, Richards and co-writer James Flamberg would earn a best screenplay award. But when Richards arrived at the party's roped-off VIP section, a guard blocked his entry. No one had thought to give him a pass for it.
"I wasn't allowed to enter even though I had written the movie," Richards said Thursday, laughing at the memory. As it happened, actor Greg Kinnear gave Richards his invitation and was admitted on his own recognizance.
Just another minor indignity, perhaps, for a working Hollywood screenwriter. But as marathon contract talks stagger on this week between the Writers Guild of America and the studios, Richards' anecdote illustrates one of the stickiest, least tangible issues on the bargaining table: respect.
Not surprisingly, the current contract talks are largely about monetary matters. Among other demands, writers are asking for higher residual payments when their work is shown on multiple media formats and pay-TV channels. They're also attempting to boost minimum pay scales by 3% to 4% annually.
But many film and TV writers say they're equally concerned with changing a decades-old Hollywood hierarchy they believe keeps them on the fringes of power, input and creative control--and subjected to slights both large and small.
"These are not vanity issues," said Ron Bass, a member of the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America West, whose credits include "Rain Man" and "My Best Friend's Wedding." "Writers want to be able to do their jobs. There are contributions to be made on the set and in post-production."
At least since the advent of talking films, Hollywood writers' horror stories about being treated as second-class citizens have abounded. Novelist, screenwriter and script doctor David Freeman ("Street Smart") said that when agents call writers back, it's always from their cars. With directors, it's always from their desks.
Although studio executives are known for coddling marquee actors and directors, Freeman said pitch meetings with screenwriters always are canceled and rescheduled two or three times. An assistant will call, said Freeman, and say "We never do this, but . . . ."
One time, Freeman said, he found out he'd been fired from a project when an assistant called and said, "Hey, when are you going to get your stuff out of this office?"
Meeting with a famous director on another occasion, he got a blunt reminder of his place on the Hollywood food chain. "We had done the coffee and the Perrier, and he called his secretary to bring him a cigar. She came in with a box. He took one, said thanks and closed the box. Never occurred to him to offer me one. Why would it? I was 'just the writer.' "
Marc Norman, who co-wrote the multiple-Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love" with Tom Stoppard, said, "There has always been a kind of natural conflict between the people who conceive the movies and the people who make them."
"I've always thought the relationship just began really badly, that back in the '30s when sound came in and studios had to figure out what the actors would say, they hired a bunch of East Coast playwrights who were kind of contemptuous of the field," Norman said. "They saw it as a way to make a lot of money by ripping off these semiliterate West Coast people. They let the studio people know that, and they were offended. This kind of disdain for writers is part of that old wound."
But Norman said that today things are different, and that people who write for the movies and television generally want to be in Hollywood and make it their life's work. "They think films are the great American novel or the chance to so some great national work," he said. "What I see in the strike is that more than ever before, writers are trying to portray themselves as a body of professionals. It's trying to create a new mind set in the studios."
While negotiators have been mum during contract talks, there were indications Thursday that writers might have won some concessions. It was not clear, however, whether progress had been made on the potpourri of issues collectively known as "preferred practices" that have spurred the writers' nonmonetary demands.
Respect is hard to quantify in cold cash. It involves recognition from one's peers. A seat at the table when key artistic decisions are made. The chance to affix one's name to a small piece of pop-culture history.
Among concessions the guild has been seeking are the right to watch "dailies" (scenes shot that day), to be allowed on movie sets during production and to attend premieres and be included in press junkets that promote new films.