No. Probably not desperation. The entire business, the area of operation, the market, has changed. I make no statement as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, simply describe it as I see it.
I was very lucky to make writing fees before I was 20. I wrote, freelance, for an industrial film producer who worked on this simple principle: finding a potential client (‘mine’ included Exxon, BP, Shell, Goodyear, Firestone, IBM. Honeywell Bull, etc.), he hired the writer for fifty pounds sterling – to meet the client, interview him/her and write a treatment. If the treatment resulted in a sale and the film was made, then the writer received ten percent of the budget. Budgets ranged from two thousand pounds to north of a hundred thousand. To put these figures into perspective, the average salary was two thousand pounds ($3000?) a year. A Range Rover was less than fifteen hundred pounds. The average house price five thousand pounds.
Jay, the producer, was a figure of fun. He had been a sound cameraman and was widely believed to have loaded a cream bun into his camera magazine on a big British movie and so caused all kinds of expensive delays and re-shoots. He was hyper-active, without impulse control, shot his mouth off to any- and everyone – and an awful technician. But he knew he needed writing, even for the medical films that paid his bills. (His on- going bread and butter – All-Bran, I suppose - was a series about constipation.)
And he was honest enough to pay for his writing – to find a way that he could afford and that enabled his writers to pay their bills. The second film I wrote for him, he asked me to direct. That’s another story and I’m forever grateful to him.
As I travelled all over the UK filming switchgear, tennis clinics, tyre-testing, motor racing and radical new education programs, I was also writing a novel with long time friend and colleague Chris Trengove. We were shocked at the paucity of the advance but it was still more than advances are today (other than those garnered by the Top Twenty). Then I sold a couple of screenplays; picked up my first real Hollywood commission which paid six figures, in cash.
Later, I found myself on my financial knees so none of this is bragging. It’s simply a statement of the fact that writing paid – and could pay quite well, even for a writer who never made the Top Twenty, never lunched with Steven or Oliver. At that time – and it’s not so long ago – you wouldn’t even take a meeting unless the financial parameters were in place.
So why is it that now, when I’m certainly a much better writer than I was then and lucky enough to be tapped for books, shows and movies, so many of these ‘legitimate’ commissions are, in fact, requests for free work? (Or so low paid that they might as well be free. To which my answer is “if I’m going to work for nothing, I’ll work for myself; at least I’ll own the product outright.”)
Do these people try to do similar deals with their electricians, plumbers, gardeners and doctors? Of course not and that’s probably because the ‘audience’ for electricians, plumbers, etc. has not changed over the years. That is, anyone can tell whether those people have done a good job. The electrics work. The leaks have stopped. The lawn is neat. OK… maybe the doctor screwed up but sure as Hell he’s still going to be paid.
On the other hand, the ‘audience’ for writing has changed. Whether it’s the general book reader, the development executive, the producer or publisher, no one much cares about the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing. In the earlier era mentioned above, there might not be agreement about what was good or bad – but the difference was argued over. Discussed. And it affected fees. ‘Good’ writers were more sought after – even if they had never had a movie produced or a best-selling book. Show runners and editors looked to hire the best writers they could – and they were sufficiently engaged and serious about their work to make qualitative judgments. They were also equipped to make those choices and backed by their executives; strong enough to make their arguments.
That’s not the case now. I’m stunned by how few executives, editors, producers – commissioners of writing – actually read anything that doesn’t directly pertain to their projects; how few of them can write a grammatical – let alone an elegant – sentence; how few of them have done anything in life other than experience it through the very media in which they work; how few of them can be arsed to look for good writing – whatever that might be in their personal view. Seems to me that, in 2013, an editor/show-runner is much more likely to hire someone who won’t cause waves – and might hire the editor/show-runner as a return favor – than someone who will fight for the quality of the piece. And producers playing catch-up on backed-up productions (probably delayed by BUJI* lawyers and executives) do NOT want to deal with a writer pushing for aesthetic, ethical or logical improvements.
(A digression: if the editor or show-runner isn’t confident about his or her ability to assess ‘good’ writing, how does s/he choose the writer? Often by bowing to one or other of the twin gods Nepot and Celebrity. If you hire the producer’s niece and she totals, you’re probably not going to be fired. If you commission a book from the Duke of Bling, ditto, even if it’s on the remainder table at B&N within the week. One of the great pleasures of editing, for me, is the opportunity and the power to find new (to me) talent – veteran or neophyte. Certainly, I’ll hire some people with whom I’ve worked before, who I know will deliver the goods creatively and practically; but to find a new voice who can kick my ass, well that’s a kick in the ass. Energizing. Eye-opening. Schedules and micro-management make it harder and harder to take these risks and that’s reflected in the quality of the writing out there.)
You can put all this down to piss poor education, multiple choice exam questions, the elimination of essay-writing, internet A.D.D. or any other bugbear you choose but the question it begs is ‘does it matter a damn, now, whether a piece is well or badly written?’
My answer is, no it doesn’t. Some of the most successful – and most entertaining – movies are dreadfully written… horrible structure and laughable dialogue; but we tolerate them – even enjoy them - and thrust the film-makers to greater glory by ensuring their box office success. Some of the best selling novels and non-fiction books are effectively illiterate. Or at least written in clichés and truisms, with not an original figure of speech, an arresting turn of phrase or – god forbid – an unusual but perfectly apposite word which might cause the reader to go beyond the comfort of his or her computer dictionary and open an unabridged Webster or Roget.
Of course, there are many exceptions – thank god. Some wonderfully written books and movies have escaped into the world.
Nor am I saying that the current indifference to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in writing is itself either good or bad. It’s simply the situation. It is the realty of the writers’ ‘audience’ – reader, movie-goer, agent, producer, publisher; whoever seeks our writing or writing services. Very few of them can make – or fight for - a qualitative judgment and so the system has evolved so that it just does not matter.
If this is true, why would anyone in the chain – from writer to consumer – give a toss about the skill of writing?
And if no one cares about that skill or the experience of the writer, why would anyone care to pay the writer?
Everyone has a computer. Everyone has access to formatting – the autocracy of Final Draft - and even to story-structure software. Anyone can attend, on line or in person, writing seminars often given by men and women who have never written an arresting or original piece in their lives – and probably making a helluva lot more money than ‘real’ writers.
In other words, everyone can be a writer – and can describe themselves as such even if they’ve never been paid a dime! In this regard we’ve become like the actor who’s actually a waiter. No disrespect intended.
To wrap this up: since no one in the ‘audience’ (commissioner or consumer) cares about the qualitative differences between the writers or the writing on their screens, and since everyone can be a writer - why would anyone pay anyone to write anything? There’ll always be someone to do it for free.
Is this good or bad? Beats the fuck out of me.
*BUJI… Building Up Job Importance. A wonderful phrase coined by Mark London, song-writer and producer. As the years go by, there seem to be more and more BUJI executives and supernumeraries surrounding the shrinking number of real writers. They give notes, organize test groups, make fatuous remarks in creative meetings – and probably write in their spare time.
The Mao Tse Tung Workers’ Revolutionary Striptease Emporium.
Lawrence believes he has a ‘major motion picture’ going into production this summer and he recently completed a radical customized electrical installation in a house in New Orleans’ French Quarter. (If electricity was good enough for Ben Franklin, it’s good enough for him.)