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Talking Pictures

ONE OF THE DEADLIEST CONCEPTS IN American life is the panel discussion, but then again, that may be because so few panelists in the universe of chat are either passionate or articulate. This, as I see it, is the primary lesson of the recent "Words Into Pictures," a conference organized by the Writers Guild Foundation. A naive and beautiful faith that the panel discussion is actually a buried American art form awaiting its choir of Homers was here coupled with the simple and sensible view that writers -- more or less passionate and articulate, though not always on cue -- have a crying need to get out more, if only to network.

From June 4 through 6, roughly 1,200 anonymous writers shuffled through two floors of the Loew's Santa Monica Hotel to listen in on one of the four panel discussions being conducted at any given time by their famous or rising colleagues, 35 discussions in all. There was no way to attend everything, so most people panel-surfed, splitting when the going got deadly, staying put when the talk was hot. The titles were ironic prods, aimed at provocation: "Chick Flick vs. Dick Flick"; "Is This the Golden Age of Notes? The Indie 500"; "Why Did You Change the Horse Into a Nun?" (a chat about the perils of adaptation); "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" (about the plight of Latino artists); "Sex & Sensibility" (for which I served as moderator); and finally my favorite title, a forum on comedy that featured Albert Brooks and Janeane Garofalo -- "Laughter, the Silent Killer."

Two powerful impressions emerged early on. One is that the industry as we know it is dying. The other is that, of everybody involved, writers are the best equipped to survive. The death of the present industry -- often a rumor, lately a crooked hope given the formulaic toxicity of most studio product -- tolled for all through such panels as "Chick Flick vs. Dick Flick" whenever development execs would insist that originality is what they seek in a script and speak admiringly of The Dreamlife of Angels, only to admit in the next breath they would never, ever greenlight such films themselves -- they couldn't and hope to hang on to their jobs. At $30 million to $75 million a pop, movies can't afford to be intimate. To any sane person listening, it seems that far more costly to Hollywood than any budget is the catastrophic waste of creative spirit when good minds are highly paid to strive against their most natural likes and dislikes.

That writers are the best equipped of anybody to survive the coming downturns in the filmic economy and radical changes in its technology was demonstrated time and again in panels related to indie films or the more adventurous forms of TV, such as prime-time animation. Indeed, the very reason networks resisted prime-time animation for so long prior to the advent of The Simpsons was the utopia it promised for its writers: Animated shows have to be created so far in advance that no network executive can indulge his or her passion for interference if a series isn't an instant hit. In the world of independent films, lack of money is the inverse godsend. Among other attractions, the indie world is where writers go to direct. Don Roos, writer-director of The Opposite of Sex, and Audrey Wells, writer-director of the forthcoming Guinevere, hung on to their power by refusing to sell their scripts, and later, upon landing deals, by postponing their own paychecks for as long as possible. "They say writers are hookers," said Roos, "but it's the opposite. A hooker wants money up front." Wells, who paid for significant portions of Guinevere out of her own pocket, agreed. "That's the key. Don't take the money."

This was, for me, the single most useful piece of practical information I got out of the weekend, and worth every other hour spent surfing elsewhere. Another cherished sentence came from Albert Brooks, on the last day of the conference, about the terrible necessity for a writer to go his or her own way. "Mike Ovitz asked me, 'Why do you always have to take the hard road?' And I said, 'You think I see two roads.'"


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