In 1986, the famed screenwriting guru Syd Field heralded the power of modern cinema and its seemingly endless allure over the country's most talented young writers: The Great American Screenplay has replaced the Great American Novel, Field declared.
These days, however, writers are asking a new question: What will replace the Great American Screenplay?
The Writers Guild of America West released its annual earnings report on Monday, and for feature film screenwriters, the news isn't good. Last year's total earnings in the theatrical category plummeted a whopping 12.6 percent to $349.1 million, or roughly the production budget of a single James Cameron movie. Meanwhile, the total number of feature film writers employed in 2011 dropped 8.1 percent to 1,562. Overall, the guild reported that 104 fewer union writers made any money at all last year, a drop largely attributed to a freeze on film writing assignments.
The film industry took a huge hit in 2007, due largelyto a 100-day writers' strike that was followed almost immediately by the onset of the Great Recession. Since that time, major Hollywood studios have concentrated more of their resources on summer franchise films such as the Dark Knight and Spider-Man series. Those films cost more to make, but their massive built-in audiences make them virtually risk-free from a profitability standpoint.
Nevertheless, the industry has less and less room for the kind of mid-budget films that used to provide a living wage to union scribes. Most of the studios have either scaled back or completely eliminated their specialty divisions, the so-called mini majors where many indie projects once found a home. Even the once-coveted Oscar bait films released in November and December are no longer a sure thing. Last year's Best Picture nominees saw their box office numbers jump by an average of 10 percent in the month leading up to the Oscars -- down from about 50 or 60 percent a decade ago.
And while the industry was giddy this weekend over box office numbers that shattered expectations (the Seth MacFarlane stoner-bear comedy Ted and the Channing Tatum striptease spectacle Magic Mike were both surprise hits), overall movie attendance has been on the decline for years. Last year, fewer people went to the movies than at any point since 1995.
If there's a light at the end of the WGA's dark tunnel of an earnings report, it's that not all areas of screenwriting have suffered the declines that the theatrical section has. Employment for television writers was up 0.4 percent, just slightly below the pre-strike levels of 2007. Moreover, while feature film assignments are few and far between these days, it doesn't take many gigs to stay in the black. The WGA's minimum wage for a single original screenplay and treatment is $63,895; for an adapted screenplay and treatment, it's $55,910.
One of the key sticking points of the writers' strike was residual payments for TV shows that are replayed on computers, iPhones and other mobile devices. Revenues in that sector grew 14 percent last year -- one of the few areas where writers actually made gains. So while no one can answer the question of what will ultimately replace the Great American Screenplay, savvy scribes should probably start thinking about smaller screens.