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Unscripted Angst at Writers Guild Forum

Three-day event attracts hundreds of film and TV writers, many of whom share frustration toward an industry they say is indifferent to their talent


They came equipped with trilling cell phones, nonfat lattes and bulky bagels. Their freebie tote bags bulged with notebooks, half-written screenplays and brochures promoting life-changing workshops.

Too bad the Writers Guild Foundation wasn't giving out complimentary injections of self-confidence.

Insecurities abounded during a three-day forum, which ended Sunday at the Universal City Hilton, among an estimated 900 film and television writers--some highly accomplished, others decidedly less so--eager to conquer the brutal business called Hollywood.

The struggles extend even to successful writers such as "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin. Before penning an episode of the Emmy-winning drama, Sorkin holes up in a room, feasts on Chef Boyardee and "panics because I don't have anything to write," he said Sunday before appearing on a high-profile panel with Stephen Gaghan, Robin Swicord, James L. Brooks, Bo Goldman and David Milch. "I still have to figure out a season premiere."

At no time has writers' self-confidence been more wobbly in Hollywood than now, when multinational conglomerates own most studios and entertainment businesses, and seem more concerned with profits and safety than creativity and artistic risk, many at the conference complained.

Sorkin's panel, called "The Writer As Subversive," attracted hundreds of participants who listened, laughed and nodded in sympathy as the A-list scriptwriters regaled the audience with Hollywood horror stories featuring studio executives clueless and cruel about the emotional energy and labor involved with the craft.

"I think it's harder today to do good work," said Goldman, whose many film credits include "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Scent of a Woman."

But Goldman and others emphasized the importance of setting aside the anguish and focusing on writing. "You have to continue to do your work," said Milch, co-creator of ABC's "NYPD Blue."

Often, the "Words Into Pictures" conference--which cost participants from $220 to $545, depending on discounts and days attending--resembled a self-help seminar. Some speakers advised writers to seek therapy and, in Stuart Smalley fashion, to recite positive affirmations in the mirror. They encouraged writers to confront their internal bullies, accept struggle as part of the creative process and reject those who spew negative energy.

One cheerleading moderator ordered audience members in the brightly lighted, half-packed hotel ballroom to rise from their seats, flail their arms and chant, "I'm letting go" and "I feel great."

"Say it even if you have to lie," shouted Paul Ryan, a TV game and talk show host.

Minutes before Ryan breathlessly began leading Saturday's 90-minute discussion on "Blowing Your Own Horn: The Writer's Image," he swung his arms back and forth while smiling at the suddenly chipper writers mimicking him.

But the positive vibes were short-lived. As in other sessions, talk, particularly from the audience, plunged quickly into negative territory. Two commonly heard complaints: Hollywood lavishes love on actors and directors while sniffing at writers like unpleasant peons; and Hollywood treats scriptwriters who are over age 40, sometimes even 30, as unsalvageable hacks, long past their expiration dates.

After the seminar, self-doubt continued to reign over many writers in the coffee-scented lobby, where mentors had advised them to make contacts. Some stood in corners, apparently fascinated by nondescript walls.

Shannon Corder paced. Weeks earlier, the 22-year-old graduated from Pepperdine University with two completed screenplays. "I know I should make contacts," she said, "but the whole idea of schmoozing is bizarre."

The discomfort probably won't disappear, even for writers with Oscars, Emmys and Pulitzers, said Dennis Palumbo, a former scriptwriter and now a psychotherapist who counsels Hollywood's creative minds. "All writers struggle," said Palumbo, author of "Writing From the Inside Out." "All writers have problems. But the best thing writers can do is write."

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