The Worst Thing About Hollywood

Sometimes producers working with writers-for-hire, that is, writers fulfilling a commissioned assignment, ask them to try out ideas that even they, the producers themselves, deem to be stupid.

Why would anyone offer an idea he believes to be lame? 

For too many people in Hollywood that’s less painful than offering no advice at all. Few executives have the courage to read a writer’s material and say, “You’re the writer. We hired you because we’re confident that you know what you’re doing. These pages are great. Just right. Let’s shoot it.”

They’re afraid that they won’t seem creative.  

Screenwriters have a joke: How many producers does it take to change a light bulb? The traditional punch line: Does it have to be a light bulb?

Produces also have a joke. How many screenwriters does it take to change a light bulb? The punch line: Change?

I’ve heard that same joke told, too, substituting tenured professors for screenwriters.

In the past I have told of my relationship over a number of years with Jerry Lewis. While he was as a professor in the film school at USC, I served as his Teaching Assistant. Subsequently, he hired me as dialogue director on what was effectively his final studio film, a lost production called Which Way to the Front, released briefly in 1970 by Warner Brothers on the bottom half of a double bill.

As a young kid I had laughed at his antics on screen. By time we met, however, I’d come to have a certain disdain for him. He promptly demolished that by making me laugh my ass off the whole time we were together. I found him to be also a generous, faithful, authentic, if also somewhat tortured, true soul of light.

People rained down criticism upon him relentlessly, or so it seemed, mainly for what they regarded to be his poor taste. His problem, however, in my view was not that his taste was bad but that he simply didn’t have taste at all. It was as if those buds had been shot off during the war. 

That is the issue with Hollywood. 

It is not that producers have loopy, wrongheaded opinions regarding screenplays but that they have no opinions at all. Like certain political figures, they believe whatever it is the last person they spoke to told them. 

In the mid ‘70s, I was hired by Columbia Pictures to write a screenplay that, like too many assignments for which I was well enough paid, became lost in Development Hell and has yet to see the light of a carbon arc or high-lumen titanium projector lamp.

Frustrating as that has to be, there are few experiences that mellow the heart like writing for money.

During my brief tenure at Columbia I happened to be a fly on the wall at a production meeting led by studio head Guy McElwaine, a former powerhouse agent from CMA, precursor to today’s ICM. McElwaine , now long deceased, had previously headed Warner Brothers, which studio he ran into the ground.

His punishment? He was hired to helm Columbia.

Guy sat at the head of the table with a half dozen executives on either side. One side argued for allocating the then-considerable sum of, say, twenty five million dollars to produce a particular film; the other side argued against it. McElwaine’s head panned left and right, again and again, as various points were made by the respective sides.

It appeared very much as if he were watching a tennis match.

Eventually the debate grew heated.

In the midst of the discussion, one of the executives had the temerity–the chutzpah–to turn to McElwaine and ask him: “What do you think, Guy? Should we make this movie or not?”

McElwaine, clearly caught off guard, stammered and stuttered for a moment, looking around the table at all who were assembled.

“I like this script,” he said, nodding uncertainly. Then he looked once again all around the table.

He asked, “Don’t I?”

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About the Author: Richard Walter is a playwright, screenwriter, author of best selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, associate dean, entertainment industry expert and longtime professor and chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. In the late summer 2017, Richard Walter will offer an exclusive online 6-week course. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the world’s most accomplished screenwriting educator. And, he’ll read your script if you complete it within 1 month of the class! Reserve your seat at: http://richardwalter.com/workshop/. To join Richard Walter’s email newsletter list email him at rwalter@tft.ucla.edu

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