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Mogul by Day, Screenwriter by Night

Mogul by Day, Screenwriter by Night

Articles - Directing

“As a rule, I’m not into rewriting or polishing
the scripts we develop here.
I don’t want people assuming that after all their hard
work, someone is just, as a matter of the normal flow of work,
going to rewrite them.”

James Schamus

One could look at today’s studio
landscape and surmise that screenwriters have never been in a better
place than they are today.

Not one or two, but three card-carrying WGA
members currently occupy key seats of power at major studios.
These seats—usually
reserved for Armani-clad MBAs—now belong to Oscar-nominated screenwriter
James Schamus, who was appointed co-president of Universal Pictures’ specialty
division, Focus Features, in 2002; Frequency scribe Toby Emmerich,
who made the leap from president of music to president of production
at New Line Cinema in 2001; and Oscar-nominated War Games co-scripter
Walter Parkes, who is currently enjoying his eighth year as producer
and co-head of Dreamworks.

Do these appointments signal that studios will no
longer look at screenwriters as annoying necessary evils, but as business-savvy
future presidents
of production? Bill Mechanic, former chairman and CEO of Fox, who began
his career as a film critic and screenwriter, doubts that the new influx
of writers-in-power will help escalate respect for writers where it really
matters—financially. “Monetarily, there’s no more money left to give
away,” he says. “As in sports, the stars are sucking up the vast majority
of the available money. And since no one else is likely to give up their
share, the system will continue as is.”

While writers’ salaries may not be rising any time soon, Mechanic thinks
scribes might start to be appreciated in other ways. Writing executives
have “much greater empathy to the flaws of the current relay system of
writing scripts, since firing writers is done far too casually and to
the detriment of the movies,” he says. “Movies work best when everyone
cares about what they’re doing.”

James Schamus, who came to Focus Features after 11
years as co-founder and co-president of the indie production company
Good Machine, says, “As
a rule, I’m not into rewriting or polishing the scripts we develop here.
I don’t want people assuming that after all their hard work, someone
is just, as a matter of the normal flow of work, going to rewrite them.” That
may be because he’s too busy writing scripts of his own. Schamus scripted
Ang Lee’s upcoming The Hulk, and is currently writing a new script for
Lee. How does he find the time? He writes early in the morning, at night,
in hotel rooms. And he admits that “Some of my best writing is done on
planes.”

Having a screenwriter as your boss can be both a
blessing and a curse for writers who hop aboard the Good Ship Dreamworks,
where Walter Parkes
is captain. Parkes—a Yale grad who came to Dreamworks from a long tenure
as co-president of production at Amblin Entertainment—is known for his
hands-on development when the script reaches greenlight stage. For some
(all of whom refuse to go on record), it’s a nightmare. For most, though,
like Bob Gordon, who wrote the hits Galaxy Quest and Men in
Black II
under Parkes’ aegis, it’s a plus. “It’s like having a fellow
surgeon to confer with in the operating room,” says Gordon. “If you bring
a civilian in there, they’re liable to just get freaked out by all the
blood.”

For moviegoers, having a team of surgeons working
on the movies they see might be better than having just one. Gale Ann
Hurd, a producer who’s
worked with both writing and non-writing moguls, insists that at Focus,
Dreamworks and New Line, “more literate scripts have been produced than
is the Hollywood norm.” She cites Oscar nominations as an accurate barometer
of this trend, with multiple nods this year for New Line with Fellowship
of the Rings
and About Schmidt, Focus with Far From Heaven and The
Pianist
and Dreamworks with Road to Perdition and Catch
Me If You Can
.

Hurd also notes that “screenwriters-turned-executives demand a higher
standard before a script is given a greenlight” and that “there is less
likelihood a high-concept but poorly executed script will be made when
a screenwriter has greenlight power.” That’s good news for audiences,
as the coming years boast a plethora of interesting projects from writer-run
studios. Focus has nabbed bragging rights to Charlie Kaufman’s next opus-on-shrooms, Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
, as well as the untitled Sylvia Plath
biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow and 21 Grams, the stateside debut
of director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros). Dreamworks
has film versions of Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog and Deborah
Moggach’s bestselling novel Tulip Fever in the works, the latter
of which reunites Shakespeare in Love writer Tom Stoppard with
its director, John Madden. New Line rounds out the coming year with the
final Lord of the Rings, Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook and
Birth
,
which joins Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer with star Nicole
Kidman.

Where does all this leave those on the Hollywood
power pyramid who aren’t
writers? Mechanic thinks maybe they should take a cue or two from their
more literate brethren. “There are only two ways to survive in those
chairs for longer than a few years,” he says. “Have the best talent relationships
in the business or learn to make decent movies. There are only so many
stars to rely on and so, other than dumb luck, the script is king.”  MM

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