Screenwriting For Dummies

In his memoir, Hollywood Animal, screenwriter and Tinseltown bete noire Joe Eszterhas, writer of such films as Basic Instinct and Flashdance, shares an anecdote about the Golden Age of Hollywood:

Charles MacArthur was a celebrated playwright/screenwriter who believed that studio executives were some of the dumbest people he'd ever met and didn't know anything about writing. So he decided to prove it.

At the gas station one day, he started chatting with the young Englishman who was filling up his tank. The young man lamented that he was only making $40 a week and Charles MacArthur asked him if he wanted to make $1000 a week. The young man said, "Whoever I have to kill, I will happily do it."

Charles MacArthur bought him a new tweed suit and a curved-stem pipe. He took him in to the studio head and introduced him as "Kenneth Woolcott, the well-known English novelist who is against doing any movie writing because he insists there's no room for creative talent in the movies."

The studio boss did everything he could to persuade Kenneth Woolcott, the well-known English novelist, to be a screenwriter at his studio. He finally offered him $1000 a week. The gas station attendant grudgingly accepted the offer.

The studio was so pleased with Woolcott's work that they kept him under contract at $1000 a week for a whole year. After which Kenneth Woolcott went back to pumping gas.

Later on in the book, Joe Eszterhas confirms our suspicions about LA - yes, everyone there has a script in development of some kind. Consequently, though he lived outside LA and flew in for his meetings, he stopped taking cabs, mainly due to desperate drivers who staked out the lobbies of the hotels where he was staying, waiting for an opportunity to ambush him with their masterworks.

Their Mumbai counterparts, on the other hand, are still apparently too busy terrorizing their passengers and hapless pedestrians with their kamikaze tactics to worry about plot points and story arcs - whatever Bollywood dreams they have are still confined to starring in films, not writing one. But that may change soon. As DNAIndia reports, desi screenwriters, that long neglected arm of Bollywood, are finally getting more than chai and buttertoast for their services, sometimes as much as 25 lakh rupees (that's $50K) a script!

Industry observers point out that till recently, anybody could have scripted a Bollywood "formula" film with its trademark twists and turns. The concept of a script did not exist in the industry for the longest time. So, there was no real need for writers, says trade analyst Amod Mehra.

The script, however, is changing in Bollywood and the storyboard is moving in a new direction.

Though, scriptwriters are yet to get the recognition they deserve, they are suddenly sought after. And new voices are being heard all the time. As producers churn out films for different, even niche audiences, the opportunities for scriptwriters are increasing.

"A screenplay is now being viewed as the most important tool to make money," says Monga. This spells good news for writers who are paid better now-anything between Rs1 lakh to Rs25 lakhs, say industry sources, depending on the budget of the movie.

Time to reach into the desk drawer and dust off that screenplay, methinks. If there's no screenplay, why, a foreign hit DVD will do nicely for "inspiration." And invest in a tweed jacket and hookah.
PS - Thanks to Amar Parikh, as always, for the tip.

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- August 4, 2006 10:12 AM // Bollywood , Books , Film