My question has to do with the recent trend in adapting books and old movies.
Is it that screenwriters have run out of good scripts, or that producers are too scared to produce anything that hasn’t already been in the public eye?
What is left for the writers who have original stories to tell?
— Ryan Scott Fitzgerald
Books have been adapted into movies pretty much since the beginning of cinema. So it’s a mistake to conflate literary adaptations with remakes, or at least to label it a recent trend.
But you’re right to notice that a diminishing percentage of the movies coming out of Hollywood originated with the screenwriter. I don’t think the trend represents any failure on the part of America’s screenwriters. They’re still writing great original scripts. You’re just not seeing them, because these scripts aren’t getting made into movies.
I have two theories why.
The first is fear. We tend to think of studios as faceless corporations, but in reality, the decision to make a given movie rests with a very small number of people. At some studios, a single studio chief has the power to greenlight a movie. At others, it’s a committee of maybe four or five. Either way, it’s their call.
Let’s pretend you, Ryan, are a studio chief.
If you pick the right movie, and it’s a giant hit, you’re a hero. You get millions of dollars in bonuses. You move up a few notches on the “Power 100” list.
If you pick the wrong movie, and it’s a bomb, you get fired. Maybe you can get by with a few bombs. But eventually, you will get canned.
Which movies will you choose to make? Probably the ones you know you can market. The ones which, even if they’re not blockbusters, probably won’t be disasters either.
Because as much as you love movies, you’re afraid of making a bomb. You’re afraid of getting fired. And if one of your sure-fire hits ends up tanking (c.f. Bewitched), you can at least defend why you tried to make it. Had you spent the same amount of money on a riskier project, you’d be in a worse situation career-wise.
My second theory for why fewer movies are coming from original scripts: control. Producers and studios want to drive the process. They don’t want to be beholden to a screenwriter’s vision. They’d rather buy the rights to a book, then hire a screenwriter to adapt it. (Or better, look through the vault for a film they can remake.)
For the producer or studio executive, there’s something comfortingly abstract about the rights to, say, Knight Rider. Properties like Knight Rider are very much like pieces of real estate. The studio owns them, and wants to build something incredible on them. Never mind that it would make a lot more sense — and be a lot less expensive — to build somewhere else. I often compare screenwriting to architecture, and this is another example. People hire Frank Gehry to build them a house on swampland.
An Academy Award-winning writer could pitch the most kick-ass movie imaginable, and the studio would still say, “How about Knight Rider? We just got the rights! We’re thinking Kevin Spacey for K.I.T.T.”
But while Hollywood isn’t making as many original movies as it used to, one really has to consider independent film, which didn’t exist to nearly the same degree a decade or two ago. Taken as a whole, the film industry still has plenty of room for original voices. But you won’t get paid as much, unless you incorporate a talking robotic car.