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No Limitations: The Screenwriter as Writer

by Michael Halperin

One of the myths of the motion picture industry states that screenwriters only write for the big or small screen. Somehow writers become entrenched in this head-messing idea. “My screenplay didn’t sell”…”my agent hasn’t called”…”Oh, My God, what will I do?”…”Do I have to go back to (choose your option) ‘waiting tables’ ‘working construction’ ‘become an accountant’?”

Sheer, unadulterated nonsense.

Some of the most prolific film and television writers have gone on to create memorable theater and profound fiction. In a number of instances, playwrights and novelists have transitioned to film and television.

Larry Gelbart, one of the creative geniuses behind the long-running television series “MAS*H”, wrote the Broadway farce “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and the Broadway musical “City of Angels”. Woody Allen began as a comedian and joke writer and continues creating films as well as writing short stories, books and plays. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet went from stage to film, published novels and created series for television. Before he wrote screenplays, William Goldman published several novels and had plays produced on Broadway. Herman Wouk wrote gags for the Fred Allen radio show before he won renown as the writer of “The Caine Mutiny”, “Marjorie Morningstar” and “Winds of War” among others.

Of course the way a story is written depends on the medium. Motion pictures and television rely on the visual. It’s difficult to get inside someone’s head unless you’re into voice over narratives or Shakespearean soliloquies. The interior character has to be represented by exterior actions, reactions and dialogue.

Novels and short stories, on the other hand, can delve into the workings of the mind and the psyche painting pictures for the readers of the interiority of characters as well as the environment in which they exist. While you can rely on art directors to create the ambience of a motion picture, the author of a novel must be his or her own art director creating an environment that intrigues and draws in the reader.

Okay, it’s difficult to switch gears. But if you have written a damned good screenplay and can’t sell it, why not turn it into prose? Why limit yourself to one medium when you have a world of art and literature at your feet? The incredible desire to write one hell of a story for the screen indicates that it has within it the seeds of a great novel or play.

Consider how many films have been produced based on novels, especially Victorian and Edwardian novels. Why do they work and why are they so valued? Because most of them have intrinsic cinematic values. Read Austen, Dickens, the Brontës, Howard and the others. They evoke wonderful imagery, dramatic and humorous dialogue, intriguing characters, motivation, psychological insights, and most of all great structure.

That screenplay gathering dust on your shelf is gold. A story good enough for you to spend months developing has potential far beyond the large or small screen. Consider the upside: the author of a book doesn’t have to worry about some producer or director taking over the manuscript and manipulating it so that it has no resemblance to your intentions. Plays are the same. The ultimate authority when it comes to making edits belongs to the writer as his or her sole right.

What a difference from motion pictures and television where the ultimate copyright owner is not the writer, but the producer or the studio that buys it. There’s an axiom that after you sell a screenplay “they can paint it green” and almost every screen and television writer can tell tales where producers and/or directors changed the lead character’s gender or switched locations or flipped time periods

Of course selling your screenplay and seeing it produced is an emotional high. Everyone reading this wants to make the big killing. But take a look at reality (as difficult as that is).

If you do sell your screenplay chances are the contract may have a large dollar figure attached. Let’s assume you will be paid $250,000. I use this figure because it seems like a goodly sum of cash. Note that in the Writers Guild Schedule of Minimum payments the minimum payment for an original high-budget screenplay (anything with a budget exceeding five million) at this writing is $102,980. Let’s assume your agent does manage to get you an over scale payment. Most contracts are step deals. You’ll receive part of the payment up front, another payment when you deliver the rewrite, and the final payment when it goes to principal photography. The process may take three to four years before it comes to fruition. Assuming the final payment for your screenplay is $250,000, after four years you will have earned $62,500 a year less agent commissions, taxes, etc. Starting salaries for first year attorneys are about $125,000 a year. Therefore, writing for the screen or television is not going to make you rich unless, according to Writers Guild statistics, you happen to be in the one-tenth of the ten percent who earn a living at the craft.

The answer to all this, of course, is belief in yourself as a writer who has the potential for creating insightful stories. Those stories may become motion pictures or end up on one of the premium cable channels. If they don’t, there’s no reason to give up on them. Leap at the opportunity to adapt your screenplays for other media.

As a writer with a long career in television, I faced the very same dilemma. One of my screenplays was always received with a great deal of enthusiasm. So much so, that I received assignments based on it. Unfortunately, no one wanted to produce it. A friend recommended that I turn it into a novel for children. It was published by a mainstream publisher and has sold over one-third of a million copies. No one told me I had to change it. No one leaned over my shoulder staring at my computer to make sure I satisfied his or her idea of what the story should be.

Once I had that experience, I took another story and adapted it as a novel. It too was published and has sold well. A producer read it and optioned it and I wrote a new screenplay for which I was paid. I have done the same with two other screenplays and publishers have expressed interest in them.

Of course I’m still writing screenplays – as well as novels and plays all of which have been produced. I call myself a writer because I write. For screenwriting students it’s critical to keep writing – screenplays, journals, essays, short stories, novels, poetry all develop creativity and help germinate ideas that find their way onto paper. If you do that, you have the right to call yourself a writer – or perhaps an author.

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