Booksmart, Scriptsmart

Here’s why screenwriters should do whatever they can to work in television instead of movies.

The movie Booksmart looks like a great high school comedy. Filthy language, lots of sexual innuendo and teasing, probably, because that’s where things are going in that genre, especially when it’s about empowering women, but it’s still a movie that I plan to see.

However, I also read an interview on the Boxoffice website, and in it, Katie Silberman says,

“I’m a big fan of Susanna [Fogel]’s. I love The Spy Who Dumped Me. I love Life Partners. When I spoke to Olivia and Jess and Annapurna, they said that they were excited to take the script in a new direction with Olivia attached, because she had such a clear vision of the kind of movie she was going to make. Listening to her talk about it and looking at the images she had pulled and the things she was excited about, I wanted to watch that movie. I was really thrilled to potentially get to be a part of it.”

— Katie Silberman, interview at

I read this in two ways at once.  As a movie-goer, this interview is very promising.  Booksmartis not meant to be a throwaway crapfest, as so many teen comedies are.  Instead, the people involved with it really care about making a good movie.  That’s a plus.

But I also read this as a writer, and it made me throw up a little. Not acid reflux.  Just my understanding that nobody involved in this movie is even a tiny bit ashamed of finding a wonderful script and then immediately planning how to destroy it.

It seems never to have occurred to anybody to film the script that Susanna Fogel actually wrote.  Instead, Katie Silberman now has the final writing credit.  She doesn’t actually say, in her interview, that reading Fogel’s script inspired her to steal that script and rewrite it as her own; instead, I think she actually believes that she is helping, collaborating with, enhancing, or otherwise contributing to Fogel’s work.

But when your first response to a great script is to “take the script in a new direction,” in Hollywood it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that this is a vile thing to do to a writer’s work.

In the world of playwriting, the playwright has the last word. You don’t “buy” a play in order to rewrite it; if you want to make changes, you beg for permission, and the writer usually says no.

In television, the top person on the staff of a TV series, the “showrunner” or “executive producer,” is also the head writer. Often, perhaps usually, the showrunner is also creator or co-creator of the story.  The rest of the writers are hired by or with the approval of the showrunner, and the showrunner assigns scripts and has the last rewrite of any script before it is produced.

In other words, in television, writers are generally in charge, except when it comes to budgets and casting, where network executives chime in as the highest authority.

In the world of television, showrunners of hit series are gods. Even network execs are extremely reluctant to annoy them.

With novels, the writer is all there is.  There are editors who think the writer is their employee, there to do what he or she is told, but if the writer starts to sell very well, the publishing company knows who is actually in charge.  If a writer who is making money for the publisher says, “I can’t work with this editor anymore,” the editor is gone from that project.  Period.  If the writer is selling insanely well, chances are the annoying editor will be fired and quite possibly never work again.  Because nobody tells a novelist what to do — not if they want to remain that writer’s publisher.

Only in film is the writer treated as a creature so unworthy of respect that producers and directors feel completely free to “take the script in a new direction” without even a thought of consulting with the original writer — who may actually have thought that the script was already going in the right direction.

It’s quite possible that Susanna Fogel is so used to Hollywood culture that she just accepts that other people came in and treated her script like a wad of Play-Doh for other children to reshape however they want. Maybe she’s just grateful to be paid. (Though truth to tell, most novelists know that no matter how much a screenwriter is paid, novelists generally make more money and nobody has the power to rewrite their work.)

Anyway, for people who think screenwriting sounds like fun, this paragraph, from a completely innocuous, enthusiastic producer who actually says very kind things about the original screenwriter, should be taken as a clear warning that if you are very good, very successful, and highly respected as a screenwriter, you will still be treated like toilet paper sticking to somebody’s shoe as they come out of the restroom.

When you write a screenplay, you aren’t “making a movie.” The people who “make the movie” are the people who get to shred your script and turn it into something you wouldn’t even recognize.  What you’re doing is trying to create something that will get somebody to pay you a bunch of money in exchange for beating your script into pulp.

If somebody treated your child the way Hollywood treats movie screenplays, you would hunt them down and kill them, and no jury would convict you.