So You Want to Write Films! A boom in demand is opening more doors, but don't give up your steady job - experts say it's still a closed shop
HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — DAVE CONGALTON, a former professor of communications at DePauw University in Indiana, made a mid-career switch two years ago. ``I was driving in Oklahoma when it suddenly occurred to me I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in academe,'' he says. So he decided to try his hand at writing scripts for film and TV. Two years in Hollywood have provided ``a couple of nibbles,'' he says. ``Give me one more year, and I'm in.'' Joseph D'Angora, a part-time clerk in the Samuel French Theatre & Film Bookshop in Studio City here, spends four hours a day writing a screenplay of his own. Two days a week he is also a script reader for Chanticleer Films. A graduate of Emerson College in Boston, he spent five years working on industrial films and commercials before moving here five months ago to make his name in Hollywood.
In the world of screenwriting, all roads - not to mention phones and fax machines - lead to Hollywood. If it is true, as an Esquire cover story suggested in 1980, that the '70s were the decade of the closet screenwriter, then the '80s have definitely brought him out of the closet.
``All across America everyone is not only writing scripts, but sending - and bringing them - to Hollywood,'' says Carl Sautter, who left a job in government eight years ago to pursue his dream of writing for the movies. After years of hard knocks, Mr. Sautter has made it as an award-winning screenwriter. He also gives lectures on his new career around the United States for the American Film Institute. Those attending range from truck drivers and nurses to lawyers and housewives.
The flurry of screenplays coming from aspiring and established writers has caused logjams for readers. After all, only so many TV shows (about 3,000) and films (about 400) are made in a given year.
By conservative estimates, some 75,000 scripts for film and TV will be sent to Hollywood this year. But fewer than 10,000 will be bought by producers, and only about 3,300 of those will actually be used. If that ratio sounds discouraging, it's also clear that new doors into the profession are opening. They include the prospect of more pay-per-view television, growing overseas markets, and new opportunities in animation, children's programming, and video.
``The whole field has skyrocketed in the past three years,'' says Richard Walter, screenwriting chairman at UCLA's department of film and television, whose alumni have turned out such films as ``Repo Man,'' ``Stand and Deliver,'' ``River's Edge,'' and ``RoboCop.'' ``Middle America sees a young kid come out of school and score a cool half million bucks, and everybody wants to try doing the same thing.''
``People also go and see a bad movie and wonder how in the heck it got made,'' says Cyd Field, whose 1979 book, ``Screenplay,'' is regarded as the first how-to manual in the field and is now used at 130 colleges. ``They say, `I could do something better than that.' Then they go out and buy a couple of books [on screenwriting]. And, chances are, they probably can do better.'' Applications for Mr. Walters's top graduate course have increased twelvefold in five years, he says. ``Our last batch of applications included 14 published novelists - not vanity press, mind you, but Scribner's, Random House, Doubleday.''
Among other signs of growth:
Film schools. Besides UCLA's filled-up 20-student graduate course in screenwriting, the school's extension courses in the subject have grown fivefold to 40 students in the last three years, according to Gary Berg, program representative. Meanwhile, the number of film schools nationwide has reached 1,000, estimates the American Film Institute's Greg Beal.
Texts. ``There have been about a dozen new books on screenwriting in the past two years by major publishers,'' says Gwen Feldman, buyer for the Samuel French Bookshop. ``For years there was only one.''
Nationwide seminars. ``Never before in the history of Hollywood has such a peripheral industry grown up...,'' says AFI's director of educational development, Emily Laskin. She adds that, 10 years ago, there was probably one person traveling around the country to give seminars in screenwriting; now there are a host of them.
``When I did my yearly seminar in Chicago in October,'' says Sautter, ``six others had already been there that month.''
``Our business has grown five-fold in three years,'' says Jess Money, spokesman for the popular Bob McKee courses. And McKee has recently gone international, giving seminars in London, Munich, Hamburg, Rome, Zurich, Toronto, Milan, and New Zealand in the past year.
The Writers Guild of America reports the number of scripts it registers has reached 25,000 annually, up 7,000 from a decade ago. About 50,000 more are written but not registered, the guild's Chuck Slocum estimates. The number of writers applying for guild membership is up about threefold during the past four years. Median income for the guild's working members (about half the WGA membership total in any given year) is $43,000, according to Mr. Slocum, but the income of hopefuls is not figured in.
The flood of screenplays inundating Hollywood has forced many changes. Among them is the rise of script-reading services run by studio story analysts who moonlight as private script doctors. In addition, the days of getting an unsolicited script read are nearly gone. ``Nobody has the time to sort through 100 scripts for two good ones,'' says Sautter. Agents are an absolute must. Sautter also warns that writing an acceptable script ``is tougher than it's ever been, in part because we are the video generation. Over the years we've seen thousands of movies and television stories. We are a hard audience to surprise.''
Besides the legitimate seminars, questionable ones abound, with such come-ons as ``Fifteen days to your first script,'' ``Five class members will be taken to Hollywood,'' or ``Your script guaranteed to be read by a real Hollywood producer.''
If would-be writers are swamping current outlets, there are signs that the imbalance may change. ``Pay-per-view moviedom will revolutionize the world of film...,'' predicts Alan Gadney, a lecturer at the University of Southern California's Cinema-Television Alumni Association. Technology that will allow home viewers to use their telephones to select virtually any film for screening on their TV may be marketable within the next five years, he says. Also opening new markets are the burgeoning cable-TV networks, industrial films, an explosion of animation for children, foreign markets, and the possibility of writing directly for home video.
``None of these outlets were options when I got started six years ago,'' says Sautter.
Amid all the buoyant talk, how much immediate opportunity is there for new scriptwriters here?
Interviews with producers, screenwriters, instructors, and other industry insiders indicate that the mechanics of screenwriting - developing treatments, formatting scenes to time constraints, and rewriting again and again - make the profession essentially a closed shop.
Immediate success is ``against all the odds,'' says the guild's Slocum, echoing an often-heard warning. ``No one is going to come out here and break in without paying their dues. Once they make it, the rewards are there. But it's a long road.''
``Even if you are an incredibly gifted talent, you need to learn the principles of the craft,'' says the McKee course's Mr. Money. ``Then you must still put it all together with dogged determination. Most need a long stint - like going to the minor leagues to hone your ability.''