HOLLYWOOD MOVIES How Submission Policies and Corporate Greed Have Destroyed Originality
by James Jaeger
The idea that business mentalities seem to be encroaching on the quality of motion pictures by screening-out most of the original work submitted to Hollywood agents, studios and production companies has now reached the Writer's Guild. The Writer's Guild of America (WGA) has released several videos that address the problem of declining writer fees and conflicts of interest at the agencies.
The WGA makes the point that, the trend of agencies purchasing or forming their own production companies, creates obvious conflicts of interest. Having your agent own the very production company you are trying to sell your screenplay to is such a conflict. But before dismissing this as obvious, let's explore it a bit. If certain policies and structures were established, perhaps a new studio system could be established.
Watch the WGA videos at https://youtu.be/EaXQ84Hn6_Y and https://youtu.be/v5p6urW6c7I and then finish his article as things may make more sense.
THE STUDIO SYSTEM:
The idea of an agency buying or forming its own production company harkens back to the STUDIO SYSTEM, a production system we explicate in a 4-part mini series entitled, MAINSTREAM, such available at www.HomeVideo.net
The idea behind the STUDIO SYSTEM of the 20th Century was basically everyone is an employee and the studio is the employer. Everyone is under a long-term contract (writers, stars, directors, producers) and the whole system operates like a factory, a "film factory" known as a "studio." There are no agents, managers or middlemen. Everyone is an employee of the studio and they work for employers known as "movie moguls."
Under this system, Hollywood had many "golden years" of production and some of the finest classic films were produced. Employment was high and profits were substantial, substantial enough the studios could invest in real estate that would become "theme parks" and "back lots" that would act as collateral for future rounds of film financing.
The STUDIO SYSTEM rolled along for many years until, one way or another, the stars figured how they could garner larger portions of the box office receipts if they acted on their own agency, rather than being mere "employees." Yes, the corporate types are not the only greedy types. But regardless of who was greedier, the STUDIO SYSTEM morphed into what we call the STAR SYSTEM.
THE STAR SYSTEM:
With the advent of the STAR SYSTEM, stars struck out on their own and negotiated their own deals with competing studios. They no longer "worked" for one studio under contract. Stars worked for the studio that paid the most. This "competition" -- a word Hollywood studios understandably spit on to this very day -- gave stars much more income. Their paychecks were not determined by "moguls," they were determined by free market competition and THAT was determined by audience response as proven by box office ticket sales.
This "God-forsaken free-enterprise system" generated so much income for the stars they eventually needed professionals to handle their money AND negotiate with the buyers -- the studios. Thus the "talent agent" was born. In essence, the talent agent came to power on the coat tails of the movie star. The talent agent's power is totally derived from the power of their star clients, what we today call, "name talents." And for negotiating for these name talents, talent agents garner 10% of the star's acting fee, such paid by the studio that wins the bid, i.e., pays the most money for the star's services.
For many years agents were happy with their 10% commission. But then somewhere in the 1980s an agency got an idea on how they could increase their commission to 20%. Thus came into existence the "packaging fee."
The agents realized that, since they represented many stars, and even some name directors and screenwriters, why not "package" these "talents" together into one project and then sell that project as a package to a studio. For this service, the agency charged a 20% "packaging fee" which thus became a line item in the studio's $150 million production budgets. The agents made more money and the studios got a deal on multiple stars in their shows. 20% of a $150 million budget is a hell of a lot more than 10% of just one star's acting fee. So packaging fees -- pioneered by Michael Ovitz at CAA -- were institutionalized in Hollywood and worked for many years.
But now we have a new animal. An animal the WGA and others are complaining about. Instead of the agency packaging just a handful of name talents (stars, writers and directors) -- why not have the agency package the whole shabang -- in essence package entire production companies, all cast and all crew. This is the new reasoning. The agency not only gets 20% of a handful of name talents, it gets 20% of the entire production company. Not only that, if the agency OWNS the production company, it also gets 50% of the profits generated by that production company, the other 50% going to the financiers that bankrolled the production.
Given this new "system" agencies have in effect eaten entire production companies. Maybe not full-blown studios yet but production companies.
One of the WGA documentaries indicates that WMA (William Morris Agency) bought Endeavor/Content; CAA (Creative Artists Agency) bought Wijp and UTA (United Talent Agency) bought Civic Center Media. These are all agencies buying or establishing production entities, not studios. If agencies eventually eat up studios we will see them eat MPA companies like Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros. and Netflix, etc.
All of this proves star power, what we discussed earlier as the source of agency power, is supreme. But should it be? Might this be why originality in the movie business is in the toilet? Perhaps the real power -- measured in terms of originality and quality -- is not star power, but writer power.
If this theory makes sense, what could be called the PRODUCTION SYSTEM -- might strike a happy "golden mean" between the venerable STUDIO SYSTEM and the awe-struck STAR SYSTEM. A new "System" where everyone is happy, paid and audiences don't walk out of movie theaters still puking.
Given the changes and propensities in the STAR SYSTEM, it seems this System is trying to morph into a new animal. Let's explore it and see how some good and some bad could come out of it.
THE PRODUTION SYSTEM:
Any new PRODUCTION SYSTEM should not only address the fees of the stars, Hollywood "1-Percenters," but the fees of the "99-Percenters" -- new and emerging talent, especially screenplay writers.
No matter what the screenwriting books and master classes say, new and emerging screenwriters are treated like shit in Hollywood -- especially by agents, and especially by the 4 top agencies. Screenplays written by new and emerging writers are treated as "spam." New writers and emerging directors are treated worse than concentration camp inmates.
Given these realities, the PRODUCTION SYSTEM would have to avoid behaving like the current highly-bigoted, discriminating STAR SYSTEM, a system that over-values stars and under-values writers, to put it bluntly.
Specifically, the Hollywood movie industry operates on the principle of favoritism, cronyism and nepotism, three flavors of discrimination.
And this discrimination has been going on for over 100 years. In short, Hollywood does not operate on a merit system. It favors its 1-percenters -- "name talent elite" -- in the same way Protestant America favors ITS 1-Percenters -- "the power elite" who own 60% of the wealth. Hollywood's 1-Percenters probably own more. After all, while Hollywood stars have 3, 4 or 5 houses with several jets in the driveway, new and talented screenwriters have 1- or 2-bedroom apartments infested with cockroaches. This is what we could call "income disparity" -- a far cry away from "social equity".
And all of this wealth disparity and social inequity could change if a few simple policies were adopted by the Hollywood power elite, what's known as the CONTROL GROUP, a demographic described by entertainment-securities attorney and author, John W. Cones, as politically liberal, not-very-religious Ashkenazi males of European heritage. This demographic dominates most of the top three executive positions of the MPA studio/distributors and the top talent agencies.
So how could the a new PRODUCTION SYSTEM improve the quality of Hollywood movies and remedy submission policies that destroy originality? The first thing is by getting rid of the intolerant policy known as "UNSOLICITED SUBMISSIONS," a policy designed to treat new and original screenplays that offer competition as "screenplay spam."
In Hollywood, Screenplay Spam -- what could be defined as "unsolicited or unrepresented original screenplays written by talented new and emerging writers" -- is policed more than guns in a prison.
All over Hollywood, especially in the mailrooms of the 4 top talent agencies and the MPA studio/distributors, screenplays written by new and original writers are trashed or burnt in back parking lots. Then nasty letters (written by hack lawyers and wannabe paralegals) are drafted and sent to the screenplay writers warning them to never send in another screenplay or they will be violating the UNSOLICITED SUBMISSION policy and probably black listed.
According to senior executives I have spoken to at various studios, THE UNSOLICITED SUBMISSION policy was designed by legal departments to attenuate submissions that could cause legal liabilities. In other words, good-guy executives have no choice, they can no longer accept screenplays from writers unless they come in through an agency. Development executives can no longer accept submissions from "unrepresented" writers -- writers not signed up with an agency, usually a WGA-signatory agency.
Such a policy might sound reasonable, but upon closer scrutiny, such a policy is actually a license to discriminate with impunity. It's a policy that fosters discrimination because it's designed to favor the submissions of established and "represented" writers and minimalize submissions by new and "unrepresented" writers. In other words it's an attempt to minimalize competition by enabling, if not "justifing," discrimination under the banner of avoiding potential legal liabilities.
No matter how you cut it, forbidding one class of writers (new and "unrepresented" writers) from submitting their screenplays to a studio while accepting screenplays from another class of writers (established and "represented" writers) is favoritism, a form of discrimination. Under the First Amendment, the established or "represented" writer has no more right to speech (his screenplay) than the new or "unrepresented" writer has to speech (his screenplay). After all, as many or more successful motion pictures come from new writers than established writers. Just because a writer is "established," hence "represented," does not mean s/he is "original" or has a better story (to tell). In fact the opposite is true.
The more "established" a writer, the more shop-worn that writer probably is. In fact the very word "established" usually refers to the writer's salary demands, not his level of creativity. Creativity and originality cannot be "established." They arise. They are emergent properties of the human race, of the universe, not "established" writers. Granted, an "established" writer's creativity may have been established at some point, but is it still flowing? Given the negative, suppressive "development hell" that is Hollywood, an "established" writer's creativity has more than likely been dulled by endless assignments dictated by moron executives that wouldn't know a good rewrite if it stung them on the ass.
But talking about legal liability. Here's where the real liability may very well reside. Since the MPA studio/distributors' parent conglomerates are public companies, the boards and stockholders of these entities should be aware that "hiring discrimination" is illegal in the U.S. You can't reject a potential employee on the grounds of race, religion, gender and other identities. Thus looking the other way when officers of a publicly-held entertainment conglomerate, or its subsidiary studio, favor one class of employee over another, i.e., an "established" writer over a "novice" writer, a "represented" writer over an "unrepresnted" writer -- when a smash hit screenplay can come from either -- could be, or may someday be, considered discrimination as detestable as rejecting a screenplay submission because the writer is Black, Asian or Jewish, Female, Christian or Muslim.
When studios require writers to have membership in an arbitrary club -- agency representation -- again, this is favoritism, a form of discrimination. The studio favors represented writers over unrepresented writers. In reality, this sounds as bad as "the studio favors White writers over Black writers." Or, "the studio favors Jewish writers over Christian writers." Or, "the studio favors 25-year old writers over 60-year old writers."
What could be called "representation discrimination" is really just another spawn of "cancel culture". Cancel culture -- collectively, the act of a studio, network, conglomerate, or media tech company issuing orders, overtly or covertly, directly or indirectly to "fire" or terminate ("cancel") the employment of a person (usually a celebrity) accused of some real or imagined deed that is deemed profit-threatening by a significant portion of the CONTROL GROUP of the U.S. Mass Media Oligopoly.
In this environment, even more crippled by the current so-called "cancel culture," it's disconcerting to realize that hundreds of "self-help books" and "you-can-dream" seminars exist to encourage new and talented writers to write original screenplays. These screenplays could bring excitement and vitality back to the movie industry, an industry plagued by endless sequels, re-makes and spin-offs, all based on the same types of characters, same types of literary properties and dramatized by the same types of boring, "name talents."
HOLLYWOOD WEALTH DISPERITY:
Yes the CONTROL GROUP in Hollywood likes to keep its 1-Percenters in power just as the CONTROL GROUP in America likes to keep ITS 1-Percenters in power. For all its screaming and finger-pointing, Hollywood is a microcosm of America's wealth disparity, its intolerance, discrimination, bigotry and social inequities. In short, when an exasperated student from one of the nation's film schools, yells, "Fuck America" what they are really yelling is "Fuck Hollywood" because academia is upstream from media and media is upstream from politics. Academia à Media à Politics
So new and emerging writers with original screenwriters, take note: you can write, re-write, school, study and network until your brain melts, the problem is: after you get that screenplay done, the studios and agents in Hollywood don't give a shit.
Hollywood is dominated by people that don't give a shit, also known as agents, personal managers, business managers, lawyers and executives, what could be called "business mentalities". Business mentalities are the first ones to get their grimy hands on your new, original screenplay. They are the ones that filter, spit upon and then burn everything you submit. It's so bad, if you as a talented, emerging screenwriter call one of the top agencies to just ASK if you may submit a screenplay, they will tell you "the very act of calling them, violates their submission policy." Yes, "querying" an agent is now "illegal" in Hollywood. So seems the First Amendment.
Even if you are a PRODUCER submitting a screenplay as part of a package of talent, paranoid lawyers force agencies and studios to brand anything you attempt to submit as "unsolicited material." Again, your precious, original screenplays are nothing more than spam, screenplay spam to the business mentality. It's insane, and it's why today's movies are generic, boring and unrepresentative of originality.
The Hollywood STAR SYSTEM is engineered to reject new, talented writers and any idea that's original. An original idea, especially one that came from the West, would crowd out sequels and dumbed-down action pictures that are designed make money in foreign markets, especially the Chinese market. It's institutional movies for profit, not entertainment. And all this favors high-priced stars and a represented elite of established writers that machinate with their agents to eliminate competition and cater to foreign markets, often apologizing for Western culture in the process.
As discussed or implied, the Hollywood movie industry makes little attempt to process original screenplays from new and emerging writers especially "unrepresented" writers. It would rather avoid such screenplays, and here are the reasons why, they say:
1) "There are so many screenplays we can't possibly read all of them."
2) "Unsolicited screenplays present a legal liability because "unrepresented" writers make false accusations of plagiarism."
Both of these "justifications" for avoiding screenplay submissions -- at the agency, studio or production company level -- are bogus. And here's why.
To set up a screenplay processing division in every MPA studio and major agency it would cost peanuts. With even a small portion of the billions of dollars they have generated on the backs of earlier artists, endlessly exploited, major studios and agencies could afford it -- if they really desired to improve the quality and originality of entertainment industry and stop discriminating.
A properly-staffed and operated screenplay evaluation division could be run for as little as $500,000 to $3,000,000 a year. This is within reach of every studio and major talent agency. It's even within reach of many production companies, especially those owned by major stars.
So justification 1), 'there are too many screenplays,' is horseshit. Every screenplay that's written every year -- all 15,000 plus of them -- could be evaluated. Panels of 6 - 12 readers could staff every evaluation department and screenplays could be independently evaluated for merit and originality without CONTROL GROUP bias. More originality -- not more sequels -- should be the mantra.
Justification 2) could be addressed by one simple action: do not acknowledge receipt of unsolicited screenplays when they arrive in the mail or by pdf file. If there is no material evidence that an agent or studio received the screenplay, how can the sender, the writer, sue anyone? If the writer can't sue anyone, there's no liability.
These so-called "releases" may actually increase the legal liability. The writer basically fills out a contract that says to the studio, "I realize you have a lot of movies in development so one or more of them is probably going to be similar or identical to the screenplay I submit you so, given this, I waive my right to sue you."
The problem with a "release" is it releases the studio, not only from legal LIABILITY, but moral and ethical RESPONSIBILITY. In other words, you as the writer have just given the studio the "legal" right to steal your screenplay with impunity. If simply avoiding a paper trail by not acknowledging unsolicited submissions (as discussed above) remedies liability just as well, why are the studios so release crazy? Seems suspicious.
It's almost as if the suspicion and craziness is intended because it "justifies," if not demands, agency representation. The logic goes like this: screenwriters need an agent to submit their screenplays because writers sue studios and/or studios steal ideas and/or screenplays. Everyone is a crook so we need agents to de-crook everybody. Great system. Again, if NOT acknowledging "unsolicited submissions" can or does remedy liability, why does the studio need to get releases signed OR be so anal about rejecting "unsolicited submissions?"
Also, studios would save millions NOT having to write and send out that stupid letter that goes like this: "We are in receipt of your screenplay, BIGOTED AGENTS, and we regret to inform you that, at this time, it doesn't fit our production slate, but thanks for considering us at Screw Writers Entertainment."
The fact that the studios and agents even HAVE such an onerous and ignorant "unsolicited material" policy indicates a high probability that some, perhaps much, theft and/or idea and/or concept plagiarism is taking place routinely in Hollywood. So here's my "conspiracy theory." What probably happens is "unsolicited" screenplays (under the "protection" of releases) are sent in by "unrepresented" writers and culled for ideas and "high concepts" using "reader reports." Then this "coverage" goes to a Director of Creative Affairs or a VP of Development where she hires studio-approved, "established," agent-represented writers to write "original" screenplays incorporating the stolen ideas and high concepts from the new, "unrepresented" talented sucker writers. After all they gave the studio "permission" with their signed "release" -- a memorandum of legalized theft.
And this is not just a "conspiracy theory." Agencies and studios have stated in writing 'if you send in unsolicited material, we can't guarantee we won't (inadvertently) use it.' So the "unsolicited material" policy is a ruse to "justify" studio idea/concept/screenplay theft with writers' "crimes" of unsolicited submissions.
And further evidence that the whole concept of "unsolicited submissions" is a ruse is the fact that studios and agencies solicit a screenplay once in a blue moon -- and when they do, you can bet it's mostly from writers who are on the New York Times best sellers list. Anything "unsolicited" is suspect, if not totally anti-First Amendment and bogus from the start.
Any proposed PRODUCTION SYSTEM -- possibly a hybrid of the STUDIO SYSTEM and the STAR SYSTEM -- would ideally incorporate the best attributes of both Systems while avoiding the worst of both.
In Europe directors are hyper-revered; in America stars are hyper-revered. I submit that SCREENWRITERS should be hyper-revered and stars and director revered. Here's my reasoning: since there are 7 billion people on the planet that probably have a story, some of these stories are going to be entertaining, if not mind-blowing.
But here's the math. Every feature-length motion picture requires about one writer and one director. On the other hand, every picture usually has many actors, even scores or hundreds of them. But I maintain more of the 7 billion people are in a position to write a screenplay than to act or direct a feature film. By "in a position" I mean have the desire and technical expertise, which in both cases is considerable. Writing a screenplay -- at least originating a story -- is much easier, therefore within the grasp of many more people than acting or directing. Fortunately, nature gives us billions of people with stories, if not the ability and desire to develop those stories into screenplays themselves or by hiring screenwriters.
A Hollywood-based PRODUCTIONS SYSTEM should thus not waste these resources. People in Hollywood are always screaming about Agenda 21 and the Green New Deal and how we should not waste the planet's resources. Well, should this same logic not apply to its human resources?
And for any liberals reading this, consider. Whether you acknowledge it or not, most of the "stories of the human experience" that have been made into movies have come from writers that are generally "liberal." This means about half of the "stories of the human experience" that COULD be told, are never told. Why? Because stories that come from writers that are conservative, or have a conservative-libertarian bent are generally not green-lit or promoted by the CONTROL GROUP in Hollywood or the rest of the Mainstream Media. Isn't that a huge price to pay just because one may want to explore some particular ideology -- an ideology that may prove out to be great or just half of the spectrum?
A new PRODUCTION SYSTEM would take these things into account and make it possible for new and original stories -- liberal and conservative and other -- to reach the silver screen.
I don't know if such a "system" could ever be created, and there is a lot I have probably omitted or screwed up in this article, but it's a nice dream, at least to me.
Originated: 08 June 2021
Revised and Supplemented: 10 June 2021
Revised and Supplemented: 11a June 2021
Revised: 14 June 2021
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