Screenwriter David Steinberg was invited last fall by a producer to pitch his idea for a rewrite of a "high-concept comedy" about an adult slacker for a major studio.
Steinberg figured he had a good shot at the assignment with credits like "American Pie 2" under his belt, even though he heard there were many other writers competing for the opening.
After an initial meeting, the producer asked him to prepare a more detailed proposal, known as a "beat sheet," outlining each scene and character. Steinberg reworked four drafts of his pitch and met with other producers, each one offering a different take while praising him for a "great job."
Normally, jumping through all those hoops signaled he had the job in the bag. Not this time. Steinberg was vacationing with his family in Aruba over the winter holiday when his agent e-mailed him that the studio picked another writer.
"I was devastated," said Steinberg, a lawyer before turning to screenwriting. "If I was going to break into the business now, I don't know if I could do it because there are so few opportunities to sell a script or get an assignment."
Such is the dreary lot now facing many of Hollywood's screenwriters, who emerged from a bruising strike two years ago only to be hit by the recession that forced a sharp retrenchment in filmmaking at the studios.
This week the Writers Guild of America, West reported that while earnings for screenwriters have bounced back to pre-strike levels, there is a lot less work going around: employment has fallen 11% in the last three years, with 226 fewer screenwriters working in 2009 than 2006, the year before the 100-day walkout and the lowest level in at least six years.
Indeed, the recession has given the movie studios a reason — or an excuse, depending on the perspective — to adjust in their favor how they employ screenwriters.
When screenwriters do get a shot at work, they are increasingly subject to "sweepstakes pitching," in which as many as a dozen are pitted against one another, with producers picking the one they like best.
Or writers are often paid only for the first draft of the script in "one-step deals," and no longer offered a fee for subsequent drafts, as in the past. Writers also are expected to produce elaborate outlines of the script before they are hired for the project, losing valuable time if they are not selected.
The practices have raised the ire of the Writers Guild of America, West. The union's president, John Wells, and other guild members recently met with studio executives at the Beverly Hills Hotel to air their concerns about practices they view as exploitative and harmful to the creative process.
"What some members are telling us is, 'I'm being asked to write a film before I've been hired to write a film,' " said David Young, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West. "It's not just bad for writers, it's bad for the entire industry."
Studio executives who attended the meeting, including Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment; Warner Bros. President Alan Horn; and Donna Langley, co-chair of Universal Pictures, all declined to comment. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains contracts on behalf of the studios, also would not comment.
Two people who attended the meeting, but who asked not to be identified because the proceedings were confidential, said studio executives vowed to reexamine the practices but at the same time emphasized the right to protect their financial interest.
After the meeting, Warner Bros. moved to phase out one-step deals while also insisting that writers meet deadlines for work.
Of course, writers aren't the only ones in Hollywood to be squeezed. Confronted with a sharp decline in DVD sales, studios have been clamping down on the fees paid to top stars and filmmakers, who are being asked to defer their share of profits in movies until studios have recouped their production and distribution costs.
To cut expenses further, studios have slashed spending on development — the industry's equivalent of R&D — while scaling back the number of movies they release each year: the guild bestowed writers' credits on 237 films last year, down from 299 in 2008.
With the closing of several independent distribution labels, studios have been purchasing fewer scripts in favor or adaptations of comic books, graphic novels, remakes and TV shows.
All of which has meant fewer jobs for rank-and-file writers, especially those who are trying to sell original scripts.
"Except for current A-list writers, the picture is as bleak as I've ever seen it," said former Writers Guild President Dan Petrie Jr.
Writers think the crimp in what the studios are willing to pay puts a cramp on creativity since it doesn't encourage risk-taking.
"When a writer is working on a one-step deal, he's going to be risk-averse because if he takes a flier on a wildly creative or inventive way of telling the story, he might wind up getting fired," said Billy Ray, writer of the thrillers "Flightplan" and "Color of Night," whose last four projects have all been one-step deals. "He won't have another draft or two to make it work, so he's going to write it down the middle."
That's because, as agents who represent screenwriters note, a script often doesn't come together until after multiple rewrites.
"In my opinion, it's shortsighted," said Nicole Clemens, head of the motion picture literary department for International Creative Management. "In terms of the development process, what's unfortunate about the one-step deal is that the movie is often 'found' in the second or third draft."
Which means that if writers don't succeed with the first draft, they won't get the chance to try, try again.