The History of Screen Writing
Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, once stated, “Writers are the most important part of the making of a motion picture and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from finding out.” Today, this thought still persists. That is why screenwriting is the foundation of every film that exists. It is the long rich history of screenwriting that has brought us to where we are today in the world of film and television.
People often confuse screenwriting with playwriting but in fact both are different. Each of these has their own unique formatting requirements. Screenwriters must focus on different aspects such as movement and directions; whereas, plays tend to look more closely at dialogue.
At the beginning of film, screenwriters were only required to write scenarios for entire movies. This is in contrast to current films, where screenwriters of today are required to develop each scene in its entirety. This development includes dialogue and character movement. In the past, studios constructed story departments to deal only with scenario creations. These story departments offered writers introduction into the early stages of Hollywood’s studio system. Women were the majority of hired writers during this time.
In 1949, the first essential screenwriting guide was published by John Howard Lawson. Since then there have been changes; however, the fundamentals of screenwriting still remain intact today. Many of the changes have occurred due to the addition of software platforms. It is those software platforms that now allow scripts to be integrated with other aspects of the film business; story-boarding, prop management, casting, etc.
The film industry’s change from silent films to “talkies” also brought changes such as the need for dialogue. Those writers who previously crafted scenarios were seen as unable to deal with these new requirements; thereby, studios had to bring other writers into the business to deal with these new challenges. Many of these were playwrights and novelists. Because of these many varied experiences, it became difficult to capture the exact screenwriting needs for a particular studio; thus, a screenwriting skill for “talkies” began to develop.
Today screenwriting has developed into its own career path to meet the many demands of studios. Eventually, some of these screenwriters went on to become directors and producers; however, other screenwriters worked together to establish the Hollywood Screen Writers Guild in 1922 which became affiliated with the Authors Guild in 1933. Eventually it became part of the new Writers Guild of America (West) in 1951 through 1954. Their original goal was to deal with cuts in wages.
Through time, major strikes have resulted from a lack of agreement between the union and studios. In 1988, the WGA went on strike concerning residuals from repeats as well as videos of scripted shows and made-for-television movies. Another strike came about from 2007 to 2008 as writers addressed concerns of receiving revenue from DVDs, Internet content, and other forms of new media.
A defining moment for screenwriters as well as the entire film industry came in the late 40s and early 50s. This occurred when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) sought to investigate all people who it thought might be involved in communism. At the forefront of this was Senator Joseph McCarthy, thus the term McCarthyism was coined.
It was during this time that the HUAC began to subpoena screenwriters, directors and other persons in the film industry that were thought to be involved with the Communist Party. There were ten men, also known as the “Hollywood Ten,” who did not cooperate and cited the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and free assembly. They falsely believed they were legally protected by citing their First Amendment rights. Eventually they were sentenced to prison under the pretext of “Contempt of Congress.”
Others who saw what happened to the “Hollywood Ten,” began to cite their Fifth Amendment right as protection against self-incrimination. However, although this protected them from being in contempt of congress, it did not preclude them from being dismissed by government agencies and private employers. It became a witch hunt of modern times that focused on all workers in the studio system.
Those deemed to be sympathetic to communism faced blacklisting in the business. Dalton Trumbo, Lillian Hellman and Albert Maltz are just three examples of screenwriters blacklisted because of accusations. Some screenwriters never worked again.