The Gods of LA
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
The last few years have not been all that kind to screenwriters.
The Hollywood spec script goldrush of the 1980’s and early 1990’s seems like an age ago now with spec sales falling to an all time low of just 58 in the mid 2000's.
Yep, 58. For the whole year, out of probably 100,000 spec scripts written and registered with the WGA.
As a young man I spent a fair bit of time in LA, I was even part of that goldrush myself, working at first as a reader for two of the major studios then selling two spec scripts to those major’s. It was a heady time. Wall Street had the brokers that called themselves the Masters of the Universe – we were the Gods of LA. Bright young talents, penning the next blockbuster for Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. We were in demand, with agents buying us lunch at the Ivy on Robertson and an attitude where we felt like we could just saunter through the gates of Columbia Pictures, or Paramount, or Fox, drop our latest script on the exec’s desk and walk out with the million dollar cheque. We wrote like we were in a hurry and partied like The Wolf of Wall Street.
“we’d like to make an offer”
The start of every week felt like a madcap rush of scripts being couriered - this was long before the internet - in the sweaty hands of agents’ interns to the eager and equally sweaty hands of the heads of development at all the major studios. Agents would bark down the phone at studio execs, telling them they had a hot script on it’s way over and they better f***** read it right f***** now before they take it to Columbia or Universal. So they did just that and later that day, the agent would get a phone call back with that most magical of phrases - “we’d like to make an offer”.
They were heady times and we thought the only thing that could stop us was our bodies finally giving in to the amount of pharmaceutical stimulus they were getting.
But then it did all came to a stop and it was accountants and lawyers that pulled the plug. The studio execs suddenly found themselves having meetings with mergers and acquisitions teams as huge media multi-nationals bought up the studios and looked for multi channel intellectual property and brands rather than movies. The office shelves that groaned under the weight of scripts that had never been produced were suddenly examined and audited and questions were asked. The age of the franchise began and the spec script party was over.
The death of Don Simpson in 1996 almost felt like a final stop on that whole chapter. He seemed to personify that whole Hollywood zeitgeist. A legend, a producing genius with an extraordinary ability to understand an audience, find the right scripts and push its development in the way he wanted. He was also a bully, an addict, a womaniser and a ferocious party-goer. When his body finally gave in to the abuse, it seemed to signal the death of the Hollywood that I knew, one that was run by maverick producers, directors, story tellers and charismatic studio heads, and the birth of the corporate entertainment giant run by those pesky bean counters.
Hasta la Vista baby.
That may sound a little overly nostalgic, a rose-tinted harking back to a very imperfect world that is never returning, probably for the best. It’s true, we’ll never see that time again but maybe in the midst of today’s juggernaut franchise movies, we could start to see a rebirth of producers who want to see great spec scripts once again.
For screenwriters, the fact that people are still buying on spec at all - however limited those numbers might be - is good news and for independent producers - it means that the best writers might start taking chances again with challenging, exciting and contemporary stories. The success of The Joker is a signal that great characters and new approaches can not only make great movies but can make real box office sense.
So now more than ever writers need to hone the craft and write movies with heart and intelligence and passion - there is an audience out there and there is a career out there. If the studios can grow some balls and the agents can once again fight hard for their clients, the spec script can return as a real force in filmmaking.
The Gods of LA may have passed into mythology but perhaps the next generation of screenwriters and filmmakers are just about to start creating their own legends. Here’s hoping.