MARCH 4, 2015
This essay is excerpted from Miranda Banks’s book The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and their Guild, which was published by Rutgers University Press in January 2015.
Screenwriters are storytellers, dream builders, and, more often than they would like, simple workaday hacks. They envision new worlds and the beings to populate them, bringing them to life through storylines and idiosyncratic details. Writers craft tales of heroism against all odds — so much so that they are sometimes swept up in the formula, becoming their own plucky protagonists in epic behind-the-scenes Hollywood dramas. Walter Bernstein, a sixty-year industry veteran and blacklist survivor, feels compelled to write by an artistic zeal and a fearless drive for individual expression. Screenwriters exist in their professional community as socially alienated intellectuals, spurned luminaries, and entertainment’s most replaceable but ultimately indispensable artists. They are creative workers building widgets within a capitalist system, fabricating stories for others to bring to life. United as a labor group, these vociferous and contentious hero-makers have lived through many episodes of industry drama writ large.
The history of each unique writer in the American entertainment industry is further revealed in the thorny tale of the union that has represented them for more than eighty years. Generation by generation, writers and their union have fought to stay afloat amid evolving screen technologies, production methods, distribution models, and shifts in the industry’s economy. Rather than proactively bargaining for innovative contracts, the Writers Guild’s labor negotiations emerge as reactions to industrial economics and national politics. At each juncture in the history of their craft, writers have grappled with traditional definitions of authorship, insider status, and creativity.
While most books on screenwriting focus on the script drafting process, often narrowing to an examination of an individual career arc, The Writers mines the collective experiences of writers as media practitioners and tracks the conditions of their creative labor. In the process of researching this book, I collected more than two hundred accounts of professional storytellers from in-person or historic interviews, memoirs, and archival documents. This task of patching together oral histories — each tainted by faulty memory, opinion, personal politics, and creative enhancement and omission — is, as one writer put it, “a kind of Rashomon.” The broader history I unearth is larger than the amalgamation of these narratives. In more than eighty years of American film and television history, writers have initiated action in pursuit of collective rights more frequently than any other professional group.
Five key moments in media history triggered monumental shifts in the profession: the formation of the Screen Writers Guild in 1933, the era of the blacklist, the wildfire expansion of television and the ensuing strike of 1960, battles over hyphenate roles and ownership in the 1970s and 1980s, and the strike of 2007–2008. In reviewing writers’ accounts of these landmark moments, I trace three concerns that inevitably manifest themselves in each era: ownership of creative work, the adjudication of credits, and the liminal boundaries of membership and community.
Novelist William Goldman learned screenwriting in the 1960s from watching films. He found the young writers of the film school generation perplexing. “When I started, there weren’t film schools. … I never saw a screenplay until I was 33 years old … [when] I first heard about film schools I thought it was the stupidest fucking idea I’d ever heard of. … Now movies are important, which they never were when I was a kid.” In years to come, Goldman’s memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, would be required reading in film schools.
As discussed earlier in this chapter, this new independence allowed writers to get into directing as well. But some writers, like Paul Schrader, realized that directing was not at all what they had imagined. “Being a director is not nearly as rewarding as I thought it would be. Far more tedious. You never get a sense of artistic completion as a director. … As a writer you really get a sense of the whole. That is very, very difficult to do as a director, because you are just dealing with pieces, repeated over and over again.”
With the further conglomeration of the media industries and the rise of the blockbuster and high-concept films in the 1970s and 1980s, the industry in Hollywood saw a dramatic structural shift. Geoff King argues that these shifts in the workplace brought new challenges and uncertainties for writers: “The freedoms of the Renaissance period were given to filmmakers by the big studios. They could also be taken away. … Freedom was a product of uncertainty and transition. It did not last.” The radical deregulation of the media industries in the 1980s and 1990s, which remains in effect to the present day, led to a corporatization of the culture of media production at the top. In an interview, Marc Norman tracked the radical shifts in executive personnel and his own sense of alienation from industry insiders. “The 1970s wave was creative people coming out of film school. The 1980s and 1990s wave was business people coming out of business school who saw in the movie business a chance to make a lot of money. … It had gone from this domestic, silly-ass little business to this wide kind of megalith. … When I started out … not only had nobody been to business school, nobody had been to film school. A lot of them had not been to school. What they knew was making movies and exhibition and what the public wanted.” This takeover of the executive suite by a business mentality heralded a radical transition: beginning with films such as Star Wars and Jaws, Hollywood’s biggest concern would be to find the next screenplay that would attract mass audiences. The independent filmmakers and small studios still had a critical place in American storytelling, but increasingly into the 1980s, the major studios began to dominate. The rise of Miramax from a small independent producer and distribution company to a studio subsidiary in the 1990s was just one example of how the “independent film” was absorbed into the mainstream.
Although American television in the 1970s did not have the visual aesthetics or the energy of contemporary American cinema, it was groundbreaking in its own way, most notably in its content. The miniseries and the movie of the week were places where many screenwriters found a home in the world of television writing. In 1979, Stanley Rubin explained: “[There used to be] very rigid lines between the television writer and the screenwriter, between the television producer and the screen producer, or the screen writer-producer and the television writer-producer. … That rigid line is being erased more every single year starting in the last five years or so. That change has been particularly speeded up by the long form in television. Not only the two-hour movie but, more importantly, the four-hour movie for television. … The division is disappearing completely.” Some of the most forward-thinking programming in this era came from miniseries and made-for-television movies. If this was the second Golden Age of Television, then the movie of the week was the equivalent of the previous Golden Age’s anthology show.
Fay Kanin, who had been a successful screenwriter with her husband, Michael Kanin, talked about her experience with Tell Me Where It Hurts, a 1974 made-for-television film she wrote that starred Maureen Stapleton. Until then, she had watched her films only in movie theaters.
I was sitting in my living room and I didn’t hear anybody laugh, I didn’t hear anybody cry, I didn’t hear anybody. And I said to Michael, “I hate this medium. I want to be in a theater with an audience. This is for the birds.” And then the next day I went out … to the drugstore, I went to the bank — everywhere I went I heard the women talking about this movie. … And I suddenly understood the impact of television. Rather in some movie houses where even if 500 people saw it — that there were going to be hundreds of thousands of people who had seen this. It had a very good rating and just blew my mind. This was a terrific opportunity. … I found my medium now — this is it.
Kanin realized that the power of television was in its ability to tell a small story well. The reach of television was thrilling for writers interested in being a part of a conversation with their audiences on cultural and social issues. Kanin went on to win two Emmys for her work in television.
In these television films, writers were able to tackle controversial issues, including racial prejudice (William Link and Richard Levinson with My Sweet Charlie, 1970), cancer (William Blinn with Brian’s Song, 1971), homosexuality (Link and Levinson with That Certain Summer, 1972), child abuse (Gerald DiPego with Born Innocent, 1974), nuclear war (Edward Hume with The Day After, 1983), and domestic violence (Rose Leiman Goldemberg with The Burning Bed, 1984). Levinson and Link detailed their frustrations at ABC with the making of That Certain Summer, and how the network pushed back out of concern for presenting both sides of the issue. “We countered that the script was neither pro- nor anti-gay and we suggested that a much larger issue was involved: the question of the writer’s rights to use the public air for the expression of opinions, popular or otherwise. Was controversy to be denied anyone who wrote for television because of equal time considerations? If a writer dared to take a position, must the countervailing view always be incorporated in the script? What if ‘balance’ was in conflict with good drama?” Levinson and Link argue that political and social ideas could be challenged and debated within dramatic entertainment.
The most noteworthy entry in the genre by far was Roots. Fred Silverman, who was ABC’s programming chief at the time, knew that he had something extraordinary: “Every other week, Brandon Stoddard, who ran the movie operation … would come in and say, we need another hour. … Next thing you know, we have twelve hours of this thing. But it was good. It was really good. We had great writers on it — Bill Blinn and Ernie Kinoy. … Sixty percent of the population of the US watched that show. By the time we got to the fourth or fifth night, people were not going out. They were not going to the movies. They were mesmerized.” By the end of the week of its first airing in January 1977, approximately eighty million people were tuning in; the final episode had an astonishing Nielsen rating of 51.1 and a 71 share (that is, more than half the households in the United States were watching the series, and 71 percent of all people watching television were tuned in to that series during its time slot). In all, 85 percent of American homes with televisions tuned in to at least some part of the series. When asked how he was able to write about a black family through the generations, William Blinn, a white man from Toledo, Ohio, explained that he not only had access to Alex Haley (who wrote the book the series was based on), but he also related to the story’s family dynamics. “I was writing about Kunta Kinte, I’m writing about a farm kid in a community where the father is the absolute ruler of the roost, outwardly, but everybody knows that momma holds the power. And I do know that world. I know what it’s like to say to a kid in stern tones, ‘You do it and do it right now.’” The series was a powerful experience for the American people in portraying slavery and African American heritage and generational history, but it also stood out for its lack of representation of minority voices behind the screen.
Blinn lamented the decline of the television film in the 1980s: “We lost a lot when television lost movies of the week. Movies of the week meant two nights a week and sometimes three nights a week there would be a story you hadn’t seen before with characters you didn’t know about. Some of it was kind of awful and predictable and silly. Some of it, occasionally, was absolutely wonderful and heart-stopping and they were taking risks because they couldn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s do what we did last week.’ We didn’t do anything last week.”
In the realm of comedy, CBS stole Saturday nights in the ratings with season after season of extraordinary series in the 1970s: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. Fred Silverman, who was the head of programming at CBS at the time and who, with Bob Wood, scheduled the series in a block, called Saturday “probably the best night of television in the history of television. People didn’t go out on Saturday night.” Paramount produced M*A*S*H, but the rest of these series, like much of primetime in this decade, originated from independent television production companies.
The rise of these production companies — and the reason for their two decades of success — was a direct outcome of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1970. Fin-Syn prohibited networks from owning equity in the programming they aired, including syndication rights to series. These new rules allowed the Hollywood studios to invest more in television programming and encouraged the formation of independent production companies, including Lorimar, Carsey-Werner Productions, Aaron Spelling Productions, Stephen J. Cannell Productions, MTM, and Tandem/TAT.
Great production houses made a programmer’s job easier: they had already vetted writers and series — and paid for them. They knew the character of the networks and could assess whether a series might find an audience. Fred Silverman appreciated the simpler corporate structure of the networks at the time, which made the process of greenlighting a series easier and faster. There might be challenges bringing a series to air, but once he had a hit and was working with known hyphenates or established independent production companies, he could make decisions quickly. For example, he told the story of asking Garry Marshall to pull together a test pilot (in fact, just a few scenes) for a possible Laverne and Shirley spin-off from Happy Days. “It makes a big difference to be able to do something quickly, but also to be able to recognize something that’s good. … That was probably the best program development.”
Easily the most exciting independent players in television production, especially for writers, were Grant Tinker at Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM and Norman Lear at Bud Yorkin’s Tandem/TAT Productions. John Caldwell argues that many series created under the leadership of Lear and Tinker challenged audiences’ opinions on contemporary social issues and intellectual problems but were conservative in terms of their visual aesthetic. “Although the old aesthetic standbys — liveness, character acting, and sensitive writing — increased in programming value and stature during this period, many of television’s stylistic capabilities were essentially ignored. … For both Tandem and MTM, then, company style was defined entirely as an issue of content, not form.” In part, the rationale behind high-content, low-style series was to allow the production companies to create television on a limited budget. If they saved on the aesthetic side, Tandem and MTM could reinvest their profits in more series that they loved and believed would succeed. If the series failed, they were stuck with the bills. Lear described his sense of personal and social responsibility for the programming he created and for the series that his company produced with little to no financial help from the networks. When asked about deficit financing, Lear replied, “Nobody would make Mary Hartman so I made Mary Hartman. We paid for that. I don’t think of it as deficit financing, we just fucking paid for it.”
These two independent companies put their money into making intelligent, content-rich, topical programming using extraordinary acting, directing, and writing talent. Pretty much every writer during the era wanted to work on an MTM or Tandem series. Susan Harris, who scripted the abortion episode of Maude and later went on to create Benson and The Golden Girls, expressed her gratitude for working with producers and executives who let her push social and cultural boundaries. “Comedy is a less threatening way to deliver messages to audiences. … The first job was to entertain and then I was always looking for something more, something to say, to express myself. And sometimes that comes from a very dark place.” Allan Burns described working with Grant Tinker at MTM: “Everybody wanted to work there because of Grant. You knew you would be backed up. The writer came first. … That was his modus operandi for everything that happened at MTM. He would hire the best people he could find, listen to their ideas, they would work out an idea together, and he would say, ‘Go do it.’ And, if it was good, he knew it. … Look at St. Elsewhere, which started with very low ratings. So did Hill Street Blues. And then when he went to NBC and started Cheers and Cosby? He protected everybody.”
The two companies had a friendly rivalry. Robert Schiller, who was the head writer for Maude, used to joke about The Mary Tyler Moore Show as light entertainment: “We have a two-parter on abortion and they’re going to counter with a three-parter on mayonnaise.” The two programs were arguably the most forward-thinking series about women that had ever been on American television. Norman Lear talked about his relationship with Grant Tinker and how they partnered in picking writers who would best fit their shows: “We actually could talk about what was best for the writer. [If both] of us wanted the same writer, where was the better opportunity? … That came up several times. It was easy for us because we cared about the writer.” The sense from many writers interviewed was that the system was less paternalistic than it was dedicated to working with writers to craft their skills and to encourage excellence.
David Isaacs and his writing partner Ken Levine mapped three distinct schools of writing in the era: Norman Lear’s “socially aware comedy”; MTM’s “more sophisticated and smarter and character-based” formula; and “the Garry Marshall school [then Miller-Milikis-Boyett Productions], which was silly and fun and really well written.” A comedy writer who could get into one of those companies would be “well-served, you’d learn a lot.” Isaacs and Levine were both talented and lucky enough to land sought-after staff writing jobs. Increasingly, during the 1970s and 1980s, there were far more writers looking for work than film and television studios could absorb. And not everyone felt that the playing field for employment was level.
Miranda Banks is associate professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. Her book The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and their Guild was published by Rutgers University Press in January 2015.