Gregory Poirier argues that movies have suffered because of misguided cost-cutting:
A few years ago (pre-strike, though it is impolitic to say so), studios developed lots of material. Many creative minds (that would be writers) doing lots of good work led to lots of options for the studios as to what made it to the screen. Even though there was a lot more development then, the costs were small compared to the rest of the movie-making process. Writers are, for better or worse, usually a tiny percentage of a major studio film’s budget. As the corporations that own the studios searched for ways to cut spending, writers became an obvious target. All of these writers being paid for things that never got made? Preposterous! Development funds were slashed and the number of good scripts in circulation cratered.
Ironically, although this has been difficult for writers as a whole, the ones hardest hit by this disastrous policy are the studios themselves. They have crippled themselves in their ability to make good films.
Screenwriters are essentially the research and development departments of the film industry. Like any other business, a quick way to boost profits is to cut way back on research. But that costs companies in the long run, because they’re unlikely to have innovative products down the road.
Television hasn’t cut back in the same way. Even with the rise of reality television, the number of pilots ordered has increased, reaching a high of 169 produced pilots last year.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that TV has hit so many home runs lately. They’re taking more swings.
Television pilots cost several million dollars each — more money than any feature is likely to spend on a script. But in TV, shooting a pilot that doesn’t get picked up isn’t considered a failure. It’s par for the course. It’s the cost of doing business.
Poirier wishes movie studios would emulate the TV mindset:
More writers working on more projects, with more freedom as to where the story leads, and with the knowledge that they have partners at the studio they can trust to see the solutions as well as the issues; this is what will return movies to their rightful place as the most fertile ground for good storytelling. The corporations that run Hollywood now and the MBAs that develop for them must come to see that writers are, in practicality, the smallest expense in the entire pipeline.
There’s always the risk of a golden-age fallacy — things were so much better back then — and truthfully, writing for television can suck in its own special ways. So let’s not chase too many rainbows, or pretend that throwing money at the problem will fix everything.
We’ve created a culture of sweepstakes pitching, pre-writes and unpaid rewrites that won’t magically go away. For the current generation of development execs, this fear-based cover-your-ass approach to screenwriters is completely normal.
And with more movies in development, that would also mean more scripts that never shoot. Trust me: getting paid to write an unproduced movie is not the Hollywood dream.
Still, the exodus of feature writers to television might slow or even reverse if studios were willing to gamble even a little bit. TV will roll the dice on risky ideas — “It’s a show about a plane crash on an island with a smoke monster!” — because when these shows work, they break out.
Movie studios won’t even try. In most cases, if they can’t see the poster, they won’t even consider the pitch.
Maybe that makes the studio system ripe for disruption. Money is money, and there are new billionaires every day. But I suspect the solution is slower and steadier, with studios reframing their approach: paying writers pays dividends, both in the short term and the long run.