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Writers have marginalized themselves

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Although he certainly could not have imagined DVDs, streaming video, the iPhone and the Internet at the time, the novelist and screenwriter James M. Cain decided in 1947 that Hollywood studios had too much power over writers. He thought screenwriters should retain the copyright to their work (as had historically been the rule with novelists and playwrights), and he proposed a plan under which writers would lease their work to the studios and share in all resales and remakes.

Edna Ferber, the Michigan-born novelist and playwright, had managed to pull off such a deal two years earlier by leasing -- rather than selling -- the rights to her novel "Saratoga Trunk" to Warner Bros. But the Ferber example turned out to be an aberration, and Cain, the author of "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," was branded a communist by other members of the Writers Guild and his "radical" idea run out of town. So much for the solidarity of writers -- at least at the time.

It's sometimes forgotten now how such attempts at organizing writers in Hollywood were so often rebuffed by the Red-baiting politics of the 1930s and '40s, as if unions and the whole idea of collective bargaining were anathema to the American way of life. Back when the Writers Guild was first struggling to win recognition in the late 1930s, newspaper czar Roy Howard (of Scripps-Howard fame) worried that having all those writers working together under one banner would mean the creation of "a writers soviet."

Around the same time, Jack Warner, president of the studio that he and his brothers founded, warned screenwriters that their efforts to win expanded rights would not be tolerated. He and his fellow movie moguls wanted no part of the theater's artistic and legal model, which was based on the premise that the playwright owns his own work and retains copyright and, in theory, artistic control. Under the Dramatists Guild contract for playwrights (first agreed to in 1919 and largely unchanged to this day), no changes can be made to a script without the consent of the author, who must also be involved in selecting the cast and director.

The studio bosses insisted, however, that the process of creating movies was fundamentally different and more like an industrial assembly line designed to maximize profits (this predated the notion of film as art). The way they saw it, a playwright sold a product while a screenwriter sold a service.

Not surprisingly, it was the studio bosses' vision that carried the day. They divided and conquered the writers in the 1930s by making special deals with certain favored screenwriters, by threatening to fire any others who sided with the guild -- and perhaps most significantly, by paying enough money that writers could not bear to walk away. As Nancy Lynn Schwartz recounted in her 1982 book, "The Hollywood Writers' Wars," the producers knew that "an insurrection of this sort had to be stopped."

The agreement reached with the newly founded Writers Guild in 1942 contained the defining clause that survives to this day: "The studio, hereinafter, referred to as the author . . ." making it clear where the writer stood after the sale of his work -- or service, as it were.

Today, as writers walk picket lines in an effort to persuade the studios to compensate them fairly for their work in newly emerging profit centers such as the Internet, it's instructive to remember that their predecessors long ago surrendered the fundamental principle of copyright and that they are unlikely ever to get it back.

That's why the copyright to NBC's hit series "Heroes" does not belong to Tim Kring, who created it and oversees it as executive producer, but to NBC Universal, the corporation that airs and distributes it (after having invested in its development and production).

Some would say that's not a bad deal for writer-producers like Kring who, after all, don't have to put up their own money to develop an idea and who are often handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Writers can earn millions of dollars for a movie script, and in the world of television, those who are perceived as successful can often achieve something close to authorial control.

Yet even they ultimately must bow to the directives of the network or studio and answer to executives who have created no characters or stories. Regardless of the head-turning sums they can make, screenwriters are often treated like second-class Hollywood citizens, routinely replaced by other writers and often not even invited to the set of a movie they've written.

Writers made this uneasy bargain decades ago, choosing, as humans often do, money over principle. The first playwrights and authors who came west in the 1920s, answering the demand for scripts, discovered that in Hollywood they could make five to 10 times what they could earn for a play or a novel. Who cared about ownership or copyright protection?

As long as there's enough money to go around, writers can afford to forget what they gave up in the way of artistic rights and can live well while working within the system. It's only when some new studio math or unforeseen media expansion alters the financial equation, as is happening now, that their relative powerlessness is again exposed -- to their understandable consternation.

The impotence of Hollywood writers has been compounded over the years in feature films by the rise of the French-born "auteur theory" that unofficially assigns the authorship of a film to the director rather than the writer -- another diminution of status that the guild has tacitly and uncomfortably accepted. "With everything people are talking about in the strike, nobody is talking about that," Millard Kauffman, the 90-year-old author of "Bad Day at Black Rock," said last week. "I believe the Writers Guild is in trouble as long as the auteur theory exists."

Everyone who works in Hollywood knows and has always known that there is nothing without the writer, and that all stories (possibly excluding "reality TV," but probably not even that) take shape on the page. But this common knowledge has not been accurately reflected in credit, remuneration or clout. Everybody knows that Steven Spielberg directed "E.T.," one of the most successful films of all time, but how many of us can name its screenwriter, Melissa Mathison?

DVD percentages aside, it's hard to imagine how this awkward reality is going to change any time soon based on the historical record and hegemony of big media.

At the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, the award for best screenplay went to Dudley Nichols for his adaptation of "The Informer." Nichols, however, did not show up to get his prize because he was boycotting the ceremony in solidarity with 1,000 members of the fledgling screenwriters guild then struggling to win their first independent contract. Nichols earned a place of honor among writers in Hollywood for this noble gesture, but one can't help but wonder if, were he alive today, he would be able to look back and say it was truly worth it.

Sean Mitchell writes frequently about theater and film for The Times' Calendar section.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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