I’ve been watching with great interest the Netflix documentary The Movies That Made us. In its two seasons, it has delved into eight different blockbusters from the 80’s and 90’s, which redefined genres and succeeded even in the face of many production challenges. As a writer myself, I’ve especially been interested in how the scripts were developed and the myriad ways writers were hired, fired, cast aside or used in various ways. What I found to be especially fun to see is how scripts for the stage and scripts for the screen are used in different ways and go through completely different processes. There are certain expectations that a playwright will have that, for example, a screen writer will not. I’d like to dive into some of these differences I thought were interesting.
First, let’s go over a few of the rights a dramatist would have when their play is being performed in a professional or amateur setting. This particular list comes from https://www.dramatistsguild.com/rights in case you went to find out more. Here are a few highlights:
- Playwrights own the copyright to their work. When it goes into production, they don’t give that up.
- Scripts for the stage should not at all be altered or changed WITHOUT the consent of the playwright. A director does not get to change the script or language to suit his or her own needs. It must be in conjunction with the playwright. The playwright has the final say.
- If the playwright does agree to some changes, and allows the director to add some dialogue, for example, those changes belong to the playwright’s copyright, not the director. There is very specific case law about the only circumstances in which a dramaturg or director would get co-writing credit.
- The playwright must receive royalty from a performance if done by a professional troupe or if tickets were sold.
What about screen plays? What was fascinating for me about watching the documentary is that options for scripts are purchased by studios. At this point, they own them. They may get the original writer of the script involved in the movie-making process, or they may not. Once the studio owns them, they have complete autonomy over the creative process of turning that script into a movie. The screen writer might be fired. It happens all the time. The director might decide to hire a new writer and the script will go through many revisions, sometimes daily, until it morphs into something quite different from the original. The original screen writer has no recourse or say in this process because he or she forfeited their rights when the script or book or whatever source was purchased as an option.
In one of the episodes about Pretty Woman, the writer, in heart-wrenching fashion, said that was my baby. They were changing it beyond recognition. That’s the way movies work. When the director gets a screen play, that’s the starting point and he or she sets the vision, changes the tone, brings in past experience, and then revamps, remakes, rewrites it in their own image, so by the time it arrives on the big screen, it is as much a story of the director (if not more so) than the original writer.
But the stage is different. The stage preserves the rights and vision of the writer in a very specific way. What you see, hear, and experience is very much how the playwright intended. Of course, the director of a play will certainly make their mark and set the vision, but the language and story is very much that of the writer.
If you wrote something that a movie studio purchased as an option, would it sadden you to see it go through a transformation? It would for me. But you know what, I’d still be willing to do it in order to see one of my stories come alive on screen.