For the past several weeks, Iíve been working with the Screenwriting Museum Project, a new non-profit in Santa Monica that is devoted to exploring the often-overlooked role of writers in film and television history. The first exhibit, currently scheduled to go up in March, is called ìTwelve Moments That Changed Screenwriting,î and Iíve been doing a lot of the research into which moments are going to make the cut. Amazingly, as of now, weíve only been able to find one book which covers screenwriting from a historical standpoint, and one book which covers television writing. Not surprisingly, they’re by the same author.
Iím hoping to get a blog started on the museum site where we can share some of things weíve uncovered in our research, as well as provide an avenue for people to share their own stories, anecdotes, or insights into Hollywood screenwriting and its neglected history. Until that happens, Iím going to post here about some of the things that I find, as a kind of open-source documenting of the process of developing this exhibit.
For example, one of the moments weíre targeting is the shift in control over television shows. One source, written in the early 80s, talks about a burgeoning trend of writers becoming producers in order to retain more creative control – specifically citing writer-producers like Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, and Garry Marshall, but also acknowledging that ìmany of the most able producers have traveled this road, but seldom have any remained in the category for extended periods.î
Contrast that situation with today, when most television shows are run by a writer-producer, now with the title of showrunner. The road from staff writer up to producer is now a codified career track for the television writer, a virtual ensconcing of the writerís place as the chief creative force in television, and a slap in the face to traditional auteur theory.
Sometime between the 70ís and today, a major shift in the power structure of television production titled towards the writers. The first part of this change grew out of a series of meetings in 1980 between NBC executives and a pair of writers named Bochco and Kozoll. The writers wanted to do a show with complex, multiple storylines, set in a hotel. NBC wanted a cop melodrama. The writers agreed, on one condition: that they had complete creative control. NBC was a last place network, and as is the tradition of the desperate, they acceded. (See RKO Studios, 1939 deal with Welles.) And on January 15, 1981, Hill Street Blues premiered. It got low ratings its first year, but NBC stuck with it. By the yearís end, it cleaned up at the Emmyís, won a Peabody, and removed the snickering from the phrase ìquality television.î The following year, NBC replicated the experiment with John Falsey and Joshua Brandís St. Elsewhere.
Does anybody remember seeing Hill Street when it was first on? It was a bit before my time, but I do remember the descendents of Hill Street ñ Bochcoís LA Law, Falsey and Brandís Northern Exposure, Mark Frost and David Lynchís Twin Peaks and my all-time favorite, Homicide, from Tom Fontana, Paul Attanasio and Barry Levinson.