More on the WGA Annual Report

In my recently published essay in Frames Cinema Journal, “Screenwriting 2.0 in the Classroom? Teaching the Digital Screenplay,” I tried to make a point about the employment challenges facing aspiring screenwriters:

Screenwriting instructors have little incentive to change the way they teach because, in spite of the advent, indeed the proliferation of screenwriting software programs in the last fifteen years, the screenplay itself has hardly changed in sixty years. “This works . . . and has through all remembered time.” (5)

As the industry goes, so goes institutional instruction. The problem with this whole line of reasoning is that it rests on the prime assumption that professional screenwriting is a vocation a student may reasonably hope to enter after graduating from university or college with a degree in that field, an assumption that is absurd on its face. Screenwriting is a vocation like playing professional football is a vocation. Most university programs in screenwriting teach students how to write a spec script to be sold on the open market in Hollywood. Box Office Mojo tracked just 120 new feature films released by the six major Hollywood studios in 2011, (6) but the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) boasts more than 12,000 members and registers more than 65,000 new screenplays every year. (7) Only 4,244 of the Guild’s members reported any income from screenwriting in 2010. (8) These odds make taking a university screenwriting course a little like studying to win the lottery. “This is why the craft of teaching the craft of the screenplay is for many more lucrative than the craft of the screenplay,” writes Howard Rodman. (9) Given these harsh realities, it may be time for screenwriting instructors to rethink our pedagogical principles. In my essay, I will engage in a little speculation about whether it may indeed be time for ‘Screenwriting 2.0’ and the digital screenplay.

As it turns out, my essay was published just a bit too soon. As previously reported, the new WGA report is out, and the numbers have gotten worse, particularly for writers working in features. In the July 10 edition of their regular Scriptnotes podcast, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin further breakdown the bad news of the report:

John: So, for this last year, for 2011, which is the last year that they have numbers, there are 1,562 writers reporting earnings for Screen, for the big screen.

Craig: Right.

John: Which was down 8.1%.

Craig: From the year before.

John: From the year before. And down significantly more from prior years. And the total amount of earnings of all those writers writing for feature films was down 12.6%, which is a lot.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a lot. And at some point you can’t quite…you have to get off of the thing of blaming just the economy. If you look at the sort of year-on-year trends you realize that even though we sort of hit rock bottom with the economy in 2008, somehow there are still so many fewer of us who are reporting any earnings. Reporting earnings means that you made a dollar. There are so many fewer of us reporting earnings now than in 2008. And we are making much less as an aggregate because so many fewer of us are reporting earnings.

And if you go back to the last number that the Guild reports historically, in 2006, to give you perspective on it, 1,993 writers earned money in screenwriting for movies. That’s down to 1,562. So that’s 431 jobs, or 431 writers that earn money, gone.

August and Mazin frame this as both an economic and artistic crisis, and they lay the blame at the studios’ feet, at their insistence on making big bets on fewer scripts with little interest in developing a broader slate of projects.

Craig: Yeah. And unfortunately what’s happening, I think, is sort of akin to what the New York Yankees went through under Steinbrenner in the last ’70s. And I know you know what I’m going to say, John.

John: Absolutely. 100%. A sports reference, a sports metaphor, I’ll totally be with you.

Craig: [laughs] George Steinbrenner in his zeal to win World Series would routinely trade away all his young farm system players, all of his prospects, for middle aged or aging superstars who could give you that one great season and push you over the line. And in doing so kind of mortgaging the future.

And I think right now studios are kidding themselves if they think they’re not hurting the movies ten years from now, because if they can’t figure out a way to make screenwriting an attractive occupation for smart people, smart people won’t do it. They just won’t do it. It’s too hard of a job. It’s too unpredictable of a job to throw your lot in and hope that maybe you can make $100,000 a year when you could go into finance, or law, or medicine or something that frankly is more satisfying on some kind of a human level. Whether your interests are financial or just quality of life, it’s too easy to go do something else.

Checkout the podcast or read the full transcript here.

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