Written By April | May 2012 : Page 2

FADe in tHe MAGAzine OF tHe WriterS GuilD OF AMeriCA, WeSt What year did those two words be-come a single noun? How did your pro-fessional identity evolve from photo-playwright into screenwriter ? Let’s con-sider such etymology in light of this Written By issue’s special section ex-ploring stage and screen, playwright and screenwriter. Because every script you write, di-rect, produce—every word, character, and pixel—is rooted in the theatuh . For example, the earliest known use of screen play was in 1916, but not to describe bound, hardcopy pulp narration—the two words defined multiple-reel drama as a play performed on a screen, literally. By 1919, you would have been called a photoplaywright, an ungainly identification owing allegiance to theater. In that nascent era, the stage and screen were entwined. Film pioneers depended on stage plays for stories, such as Edwin S. Porter’s six-reel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, starring James O’Neill (father of Eugene, America’s first great playwright). Significantly, 1919 also witnessed a general theater strike in New York and Chicago, resulting in the first Dramatists Guild contract. That agreement guaranteed the playwright ownership of work through retention of copyright. This labor victory further separated the elite playwright, whose permission must be sought for anyone to change even a single line, from the photoplaywright, often dismissed as a stenographer who owned zero content. By 1921 you’d earned a less cumbersome moniker: photodramatist . Though still dwarfed by the esteemed playwrights with their awesome contracts, you were at least recognized as a dramatist who works with imagery—although without guild representation. However, things were looking slightly up for the lowly silent picture scribes, finally acknowledged as professionals with their own magazine, The Story World and Photodramatist . That year, lapsed playwright William C. deMille wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that the screen must create its own literature. It is not enough that we steal novelists and playwrights for short pe-riods each year. We must interest them so profoundly that they will seriously devote themselves entirely or almost entirely to the screen.” No accident that deMille specialized in adapting Broadway plays for the screen, many of them his own. (By the way, during a long, suc-cessful Hollywood career, he altered the spelling of his last name to avoid confusion with elder brother Cecil B. and fathered dance cho-reographer Agnes de Mille.) By 1925, you were typing either continuity or a scenario, as in this Motion Picture Magazine article: “…women writers may almost be said to dominate the scenario field…” (The same article declared that the absence of female “moving picture” directors was the result of biological inferiority. After all, “the strain of picture production usually wears out the strongest man in a few years.”) In 1926, professionals were being described as the scenarist of a photoplay. By then the term screen had also crept into use, as depicted in Willard King Bradley’s guidebook Inside Secrets of Photoplay Writ-ing : “Of the two forms in which a photodramatist may submit his screen stories—continuity or synopsis—the latter is the one which is usually employed, for it requires less knowledge of photo-dramatur-2 • WG A W Written By APRIL/MA Y 20 12 Screen. Play. W ritten B y © © WGAW OFFiCerS President Chris Keyser Vice President Howard A. Rodman Secretary-treasurer Carl Gottlieb MARK HANA UER WGAW BOArD OF DireCtOrS Alfredo Barrios Jr., John Brancato, Linda Burstyn, Ian Deitchman, Carleton Eastlake, Katherine Fugate, David A. Goodman, David S. Goyer, Mark Gunn, Kathy Kiernan, Aaron Mendelsohn, Billy Ray, Thania St. John, Robin Schiff, David Shore, Dan Wilcox exeCutiVe DireCtOr David Young GenerAl COunSel Tony Segall WGAW PHOne inFOrMAtiOn The Guild (All Departments) 323.951.4000 FAx 323.782.4800 WeBSite: WWW.WGA.OrG WGAW DePArtMentS Administration Agency Awards & elections Claims Contracts Credits Dues Diversity executive Offices Film Society Finance Human resources legal library Member Services Membership Organizing Public Affairs Publications registration residuals Signatories theater Operations Written By Pension & Health 323.951.4000 782.4520 782.4502 782.4569 782.4663 782.4501 782.4528 782.4531 782.4589 951.4000 782.4508 782.4637 782.4615 782.4521 782.4544 782.4747 782.4532 782.4511 782.4574 782.4699 782.4500 782.4700 782.4514 782.4525 782.4699 818.846.1015 800.227.7863 800.890-0288 WritersCare info. Written By welcomes your comments. Send letters to: 7000 W. Third St., L.A., CA 90048 Or E-mail us at writtenby@wga.org

Fade In

Richard Stayton

Screen. Play.

What year did those two words become a single noun? How did your professional identity evolve from photoplaywright into screenwriter? Let’s consider such etymology in light of this Written By issue’s special section exploring stage and screen, playwright and screenwriter.

Because every script you write, direct, produce—every word, character, and pixel—is rooted in the theatuh.

For example, the earliest known use of screen play was in 1916, but not to describe bound, hardcopy pulp narration—the two words defined multiple-reel drama as a play performed on a screen, literally.

By 1919, you would have been called a photoplaywright, an ungainly identification owing allegiance to theater. In that nascent era, the stage and screen were entwined. Film pioneers depended on stage plays for stories, such as Edwin S. Porter’s six-reel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, starring James O’Neill (father of Eugene, America’s first great playwright).

Significantly, 1919 also witnessed a general theater strike in New York and Chicago, resulting in the first Dramatists Guild contract.That agreement guaranteed the playwright ownership of work through retention of copyright. This labor victory further separated the elite playwright, whose permission must be sought for anyone to change even a single line, from the photoplaywright, often dismissed as a stenographer who owned zero content.

By 1921 you’d earned a less cumbersome moniker: photodramatist.Though still dwarfed by the esteemed playwrights with their awesome contracts, you were at least recognized as a dramatist who works with imagery—although without guild representation. However, things were looking slightly up for the lowly silent picture scribes, finally acknowledged as professionals with their own magazine, The Story World and Photodramatist.

That year, lapsed playwright William C. deMille wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that the screen must create its own literature.It is not enough that we steal novelists and playwrights for short periods each year. We must interest them so profoundly that they will seriously devote themselves entirely or almost entirely to the screen.” No accident that deMille specialized in adapting Broadway plays for the screen, many of them his own. (By the way, during a long, successful Hollywood career, he altered the spelling of his last name to avoid confusion with elder brother Cecil B. and fathered dance choreographer Agnes de Mille.)

By 1925, you were typing either continuity or a scenario, as in this Motion Picture Magazine article: “…women writers may almost be said to dominate the scenario field…” (The same article declared that the absence of female “moving picture” directors was the result of biological inferiority. After all, “the strain of picture production usually wears out the strongest man in a few years.”)

In 1926, professionals were being described as the scenarist of a photoplay. By then the term screen had also crept into use, as depicted in Willard King Bradley’s guidebook Inside Secrets of Photoplay Writing: “Of the two forms in which a photodramatist may submit his screen stories—continuity or synopsis—the latter is the one which is usually employed, for it requires less knowledge of photo-dramatur-Gic technique and less labor.”

Obviously, stage still ruled screen in 1926, as reflected by your various identities: photoplaywright, photoplay dramatist, screenplaywright.Theater and its revered playwrights—their texts protected by Dramatists Guild contracts—occupied the high ground.

Author and scenarist Bradley had asked D.W. Griffith, shortly after the legendary director completed The Birth of a Nation, “what he considered the best course for one to pursue in writing for the screen.” Griffith told him to, “Think in pictures!” And with that cry, Griffith and the infant moving-picture industry migrated west to Hollywoodland, far from the blinding lights of Broadway and its stage-bound dialogue. With the boomtown as their new home, a hint of respectability was bestowed upon the photoplay scribbler: You were now half a serious writer. You were a screen-playwright.

The two boulevards, Broadway and Hollywood, divided by a continent, were on the verge of separate-but-equal identities when along came “talkies” in 1927. Forget thinking in pictures—the new technology required dialogue. Calls for help were heard by Broadway’s playwrights. New York–based dramatist Ben Hecht (The Front Page) received one of those invitations, in a telegram from his friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had moved to Los Angeles. “Millions are to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots,” the telegram read. “Don’t let this get around.”

Hecht descended on California like an all-conquering literary armada.He quickly became known as the Shakespeare of Hollywood.The first to receive a writing Academy Award, for Original Motion Picture Story (Underworld), Hecht nevertheless despised writing films and claimed to prefer playwriting. “Movies were seldom written,” he said. “In 1927, they were yelled into existence in conferences that kept going in saloons, brothels, and all-night poker games.”

Newspaper reporter Hecht had observed playwrights fighting for a union during the 1919 theatrical strike, witnessing what it meant when a writer has power. He understood that his and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page would not have emerged intact if developed solely for the screen. So Hecht worked annually two weeks to three months in Hollywood, earning enough money to live the rest of the year in New York pursuing what he called “serious writing.”

Finally, in 1940, screenplay made its first official appearance as a noun, without fanfare, in that year’s Academy Awards announcements.There is no obvious historical explanation for this abrupt amalgamation. A misprint? Or was its appearance the inevitable result of a gradual understanding that a film’s written text requires as much rigor and discipline as any stage play?

Allow me to suggest another possible explanation: legal recognition by the National Labor Relations Board of the Screen Writers Guild in 1938. Despite vicious attempts to break the writers union, including the Machiavellian fabrication of a rival pro-studio union— given the retro title of Screen Playwrights Guild—the producers and their studios were defeated. The Screen Writers Guild (SWG, later renamed WGA) had beaten Goliath.

The influence of organized film writers demanded a new identity, one that honored their growing power. Hecht recognized this and adapted The Front Page to the screen as His Girl Friday.

You were no longer fugitive playwrights slumming in Hollywood. You’d earned the right to collective bargaining and to be respected screenwriters crafting screenplays.

Richard Stayton, Editor

Read the full article at http://www.bluetoad.com/article/Fade+In/1030119/107458/article.html.

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