Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Celebrity Screenplays

I may risk going off on a tangent here (no change there then), but it suddenly occurred to me the other day that the one area of creative endeavour seemingly uninfected by the virus of celebrity is the screenplay. Sure, there are celebrity screenwriters, but they tend to be people who are first and foremost writers, and not celebrities double or triple-hyphenating their way across from other branches of the media and/or creative arts.

The cult of celebrity in the publishing trade is well known, to the extent that the use of ghostwriters is now commonplace – Naomi Campbell is reported as stating that she has never read the novel that has her name on the cover (Black Swan), and it’s obvious that all of Jordan’s ‘novels’ have been ghosted (by Rebecca Farnworth just in case you were wondering). For the most part, the name on the cover acts as a marketing hook – the celebrity functions as a brand name that can be utilised to sell anything from perfume to fitness DVDs to underwear and, of course, novels.

So why doesn’t the same exist in the world of screenwriting? Or, perhaps more to the point: should it?

Of course the economic model of filmmaking is entirely different from that of the mass market publishing industry, where the mantra is ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’. However, it does seem a little odd (to me at least) how screenwriting hasn’t necessarily been ‘contaminated’ by celebrity in quite the same way that the publishing industry has.

That said, not so long ago it seemed that wherever you looked, some celebrity somewhere was penning a screenplay: Toby Anstis, David Emmanuel (well, maybe ‘celebrity’ is too strong a word, but you get the idea) – you name ‘em, they were all hitting the keyboard in the belief that it was the one surefire way to fame and riches. And you know what? Good luck to ‘em. Far be it for me to dictate how Toby Anstis spends his time, just so long as he’s not clogging up the airwaves with more bottom feeding reality shows.

However, Toby Anstis aside, perhaps the collision of screenplay and celebrity is a marketing tool worth exploring by aspiring and established screenwriters alike (I’m not entirely sure if I’m being sarcastic or not here, so bear with me).

A screenplay is a blueprint – of course it can function as a commodity, but unlike a novel, it isn’t a ‘reader friendly' format. However, if there are celebrities out there who are convinced that their screenwriting talents are going to bear fruit, perhaps it should fall to the screenwriting community to ‘assist’ them in their endeavours? After all, a screenplay with the name of a well-known celebrity on the front page would no doubt generate a certain degree of interest (depending on who the celebrity was, of course). So what if the words inside aren’t written by that celebrity? If the name on the front helps that screenplay gain attention, then surely that’s a good thing – right? Also, as and when that commodity is sold, the celebrity screenwriter could then be used as that all important ‘marketing hook’ to provide ongoing publicity for the production up until its release.

The most important thing from my own point of view is that this would almost certainly open up a new (if somewhat limited) market for spec screenplays. So, rather than Toby Anstis slaving away over a hot keyboard, his agent could simply shake hands with a ‘ghost screenwriter’ and have a product ready to hit the market that afternoon (maybe Toby Anstis is the wrong example: think Robbie Williams, Anthony Kiedis, Victoria Beckham, Katie Price).

Also, wouldn’t the whole concept of ‘packaging’ become a little more fun? Rather than trying to excite interest in a screenplay with the name of an actor attached, why not just attach the name of a celebrity as the writer? It could work. That said, knowing my luck, I’d probably end up with the Cheeky Girls or Michelle (‘How low can you go?’) Bass, thereby guaranteeing a slow, embarrassment laden death on cable TV.

That said, perhaps I am being sarcastic (but maybe just a little bit).


Oli said...

Surely it's just because nobody gives a fuck who wrote a screenplay? Most people don't even have a clear idea that films and TV are even written. No glory there.

There's glory in directing of course ("A Katie Price Film"), but you can't ghost that as easily. Unless the '2nd Unit' director actually does it all, I guess...

Chip Smith said...

I don't know really - I was just thinking aloud, but maybe the equation is something like: good screenplay written by Joe Shmoe = no interest, vs good screenplay written by Anthony Kiedis - now you're cooking! Maybe it's nothing more than a promotional tool, but perhaps also begs the question why no-one's really bothered about authorship in this field? I'm bothered of course, but only because I have an interest in it. Outside of that, does anyone else really care? I have no idea - all I know is that I wouldn't willingly sit through anything written by a certain S. Poliakoff...

Oli said...

I don't know anyone who would, which does beg the question how does he keep getting commissioned?

David Bishop said...

I happily sit through Poliakoff. At his best [Shooting the Past, The Lost Prince] he tells stories like nobody. Yes, the pacing is glacial in its progression compared to most TV drama, but that makes the emotional pay-offs when they come all the more seismic in their intensity. Still, not to everyone's taste and the recent Joe's Palace left me underwhelmed.

As for a screenwriting paradigm to match celebrity novelists, there probably isn't one. But the role of ghostwriter is alive and well in Hollywood, albeit with a different name: script doctor.

For a large wad of wonga they do the business on a screenplay, but take none of the credit. Most famously, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck got an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting, but the script doctor services of William Goldman no doubt helped make the film's screenplay a success.

Lucy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lucy said...

The "uncredited rewrite" I understand it has more in common with Chip's notion of ghostwriting re: novelists. I know writers who have made a small fortune doing this. Nice work if you can get it.

But in answer to David's post - LOVED Shooting The Past, Close My Eyes etc. Anything post Friends and Crocodiles however are pants. Ripped ones.

Oli said...

Goldman claims to have had little to do with Good Will Hunting; he's very honest about the rest of his doctoring work, so I've no reason not to believe him.

Apparently he and Rob Reiner read the script, and both told Affleck and Damon to remove some thriller elements and focus on the characters, but neither he nor Reiner did any writing themselves.

Chip Smith said...

David - I tried with Poliakoff, I really did (I even paid to see Close My Eyes). Perhaps it's one of those things in life that I'm destined never to quite 'get'. Strangely enough, that was the one thing that really went against Close My Eyes in my book: the lack of an emotional pay off. That, and his weirdly ambivalent attitude toward the question of wealth (I've already banged on inccessantly about this, link here:

I'm not quite sure how the great man would respond to Lucy's analogy of his latter output being comparable to a pair of ripped pants, but on the whole, I think it's a fair comment. Friends and Crocodiles I just did not get at all - he seems like a poor man's Peter Greenaway to me (and the less said about Greenaway latter output the better).

Trying to think of a comparable paradigm to the celebrity novelist was what got me started on this, and David's right - there probably isn't one - which is why I started to wonder if the whole question screenwriting-wise couldn't be exploited for some type of promotional gain - which is the only reason Katie Price's name ends up on the front cover of a novel. Weird, this authorship thing, isn't it? Valued in some areas, undervalued in others.

Jon Peacey said...

Many celebrities seem to claim that they are in the process of writing a screenplay: I suspect it may be a way for people who otherwise would not get a chance to go near the film industry to ride the coat-tails of an outwardly very glamourous profession. You never hear of these scripts coming to fruition.

Actors (aren't they celebrities?) are always writing scripts, plonking themselves down as Producer then starring in the things. Frequently before the script's been properly butchered. Most actor-written scripts are very talky and packed with big emotional (melodramatic) scenes. Same goes for actors turned directors (Mystic River flawed by too much free rein given over to actors).

Poliakoff is sometimes watchable (though not often for me) and I have no problems with glacial pacing (I like Takovsky, Bresson and Greenaway) but I have problems with the pieces being as seemingly drifting and purposeless and vague as their characters; I also find they lack emotion, message, purpose, direction and recognizable/relatable characters and settings (it always seems set in a very particular maudlin upper-middle-class urban London milieu; like Richard Curtis without the saving graces of speed and and humour).

I think he may get commissioned to fulfil so the BBC can fulfill criteria of producing 'quality original drama' especially given the hole that, for instance, Dennis Potter's death and Alan Bleasdale's absence have left. If the critics fell out of love with Poliakoff I suspect he would have a Producer forced upon him... everything after and including Friends & Crocodiles was Produced/ Exec. Produced by himself.

Chip Smith said...

Actors writing screenplays - you have just inadvertently reminded me of The Anniversay Party, written by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the very few films that I switched off in protest barely an hour in. Sheesh! It was back slappingly awful, pure vanity cinema. Just the thought of it makes my palms sweat.

All this talk of Poliakoff makes me want to go and watch the rest of Friends and Crocodiles now! It does seem a shame that the BBC feels the need to commission not one but TWO Poliakoffs within a very short timeframe - Dennis Potter he ain't.

Jon Peacey said...

Dennis Potter! Gloucestershire's greatest gift to world culture.

Apart from Vaughan-Williams.

And William Tyndale.

And possibly J.K. Rowling.

And maybe Simon Pegg.