I was having a conversation with a writer colleague the other day, comparing how screenwriters are treated in the film business and how playwrights are treated in the theatre.
And, I think I understand why the difference in treatment.
For those who don’t know, in the world of the theatre, the playwright is the star, or largely so, and in movies… well… the first-time production assistant gets more respect. In fact, in Hollywood, writers are treated so poorly, with such regular disregard, their union had to bargain for the right for the writer to be allowed to visit the set!
Why this stark difference?
First, there is the fact that that in theatre, playwrights OWN their plays and LICENSE them (for tiny fees) to stage productions – giving the theatre-author far more control over his or her work versus the screen-author who SELLS his or her work (often for a lot of money) to the film production company.
In this way, a theatre company is borrowing the work of an author whereas the movie company owns it outright.
But I think the real reason for the difference in how the two types of authors are treated goes deeper than that, into the very manner in which a play is made versus how a movie is made.
On the stage, a play, governed by the very restricted nature of a theater itself, is limited to a few set pieces. These sets are a fixed known thing – that doesn’t change much.
A movie, on the other hand, often occurs in fifty to a hundred settings. Those settings, or locations, while indicated by author in the screenplay – fall under the jurisdiction of the Locations Department and the Production Management Team, who, when making the movie, must respond in real time to the very dynamic ever changing needs of the filmmaking process.
This means that when navigating making a movie, the very words of the author need to be immediately customizable and changeable to meet the exigencies of production: suddenly it’s raining, the author’s nice sunny park scene is now shot on a cloudy day. Period. There’s no time for discussion. This then dominoes to make other subsequent changes in the script.
Scenes 3, 54, and 96 suddenly need to be combined, because the production is falling behind that day, or moreover cut completely. There are hundreds of examples where production issues presented to the director require instantaneous choices to be made that trump and alter the writer’s original creation and vision.
Decisions that are made through the financial/creative matrix of the budget – something writers are not specialists in… does it cost more to shoot on the street or in the Lobby? Quick. Make a decision. And be right about it!
Moreover, in theatre, weeks and months are spent in rehearsals allowing the actors time to perfect and understand the writer’s exact words and their meaning.
In film, because of the high cost, there is precious little time for rehearsal, meaning that often actors are encountering and exploring the scene together for the first time on the day it is being shot. If a scene is not quite working, the financial realities demand changing it immediately on set to make the days shooting… the very opposite of the theatre method.
Finally, I believe that shooting a movie is about acquiring the individual pieces (shots) that you will use WHEN YOU ACTUALLY MAKE THE MOVIE IN THE EDITING ROOM. Thus at their core, movies are about editing together various smaller pieces to make a whole. Theatre is about the whole, meaning, the continuous and live flow from the beginning of the play to the end, at each night’s performance.
Therefore, the very nature of a movie is about editing everyone’s work, from the cinematographer to the director to the actors and yes, to the writer.
Do you agree? Let me know below!