The Death of Screenwriting

I assume anyone who reads this is familiar with John August. In addition to writing a couple of my favorite underseen movies (Go and The Nines), he also runs a screenwriting blog and podcast over at http://johnaugust.com.

Today’s post struck me as particularly interesting, given my recent musings on the overall problems of the film industry.  Most of the post comes from a letter sent in from a reader:

I do want to do decent work and do okay financially and be able to support my family. Is there still a way for young screenwriters to build semi-steady careers, or is that paradigm gone forever? I know a lot of young writers in my general boat, and to be honest I think all of us are trying to get out of features and into TV.

There’s also a lot of dazed talk about how screenwriting as a job is just dead, Jim.

What’s especially interesting to me is that it seems like the system, once you manage to get a foot in the door, is just as broken as it is for people like us who are not anywhere close to the door.

For the past decade or so, I’ve been working in technology, mostly in start-ups, so my mindset when confronted with a broken business model is to try to figure out ways in can be fixed.   Most of my thinking lately has been in trying to circumvent the “you need an agent to talk to anyone, even an agent” Catch-22 that new writers experience, but maybe the problem is much, much larger than that.  Apparently, there are so many people like me who will essentially work for free that it ends up putting experienced screenwriters (outside of the A-list) out of work.

Basically the problem boils down to this: there are too many people who want to be screenwriters.

Obviously, this is not a problem that’s unique to the film industry.  The Chronicle of Higher Education had a story recently on the lack of jobs for people with advanced degrees.  Clearly, our country is getting really, really good at creating people who want to work in industries that just don’t have enough jobs for them.

The film industry seems to be going with the traditional robber baron mentality of what to do with a surplus of labor – let the worker fight each other to work for as little as possible.  They have no reason to change that strategy until the number of would-be screenwriters dries up (which, honestly, probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon).

The only other option I can see is to create more jobs for screenwriters, which sort of brings us around to the strategy the letter writer is considering:

Should I act more as a “producer” of my own career? I write specs, and recently optioned some material.

Should I try to get involved with directors, and write him or her a project for free, in hopes that having a filmmaker attached will help?

As far as I can see it, the only way any of our scripts are going to get made is if we make it ourselves.  What I need to get my head around is that “making it myself” doesn’t necessarily mean picking up a camera.  I’ve done that.  It wasn’t fun.  I need to start thinking as a producer.  Find a director.  Find actors.  Find money.

It can’t be any harder than trying to find an agent.