Women Screenwriters, There But Not

In all that’s been made about women in Hollywood lately,  a lot has focused on women behind the camera. And with that, all sorts of numbers have flown around about what percentage of each various role is women. The one place where things looks less than abysmal is writing. Given the scope, film and/or TV, the numbers go anywhere between 13% to 28%. Which given that women are 50.8% of the population,  even the 28% is actually not good. But that 28% is way better than the percentages for directors, cinematographers, editors, key grips and everything else you see in a credit roll. And women writing for TV do better than those working as screenwriters at least as percentage of the labor pool. And  it’s screenwriting that needs the look.

It might seem like a bit of pleading, to consider screenwriters distinct from everyone else. But there’s are reasons for that, reasons that make screenwriting different enough it has to be considered alone. One thing is that screenwriters have numerous modes of work. Another is that screenwriters can do quite a bit of work, paid work, and have nothing to show for it except a deposit in their bank account. And it’s there, in how things work, that women get shut out.

The first thing about screenwriters that’s different from directors, cinematographers, editors and all the rest, is they’re not always hired. Many screenplays spring from screenwriter’s mind as their own creative work. And that writing, called writing on spec, represents a good amount of all screenplay work. Not however paid work since most screenwriters writing on spec have to hope to find someone who will pay for their work. Which is where things start going sideways because of how screenplays are acquired and dealt with, as well as what screenplays get so much as considered. It’s why even if women do a lot of work, they can find themselves underrepresented and with nothing to show for their work.

For most screenwriters once they’re done with a screenplay written on spec, they have to hope to find someone to pick it up (we’re assuming a screenwriter with an agent just to keep things simple). Now it can happen that the screenplay is shown to someone who likes it enough to want to produce it, that is, actually turn it into a movie. Though even if that happens, that doesn’t mean the screenplay will ever become a movie. Plenty of screenplays have in effect died in what’s charmingly called development hell. Where for any of a long list of reasons, things just stall. But it’s not that many screenplays that get picked up this way.

What is far more common, is that a screenplay is optioned. Which means a studio, production company or even just producer pays to have exclusive rights to develop a movie from the screenplay for some period of time. From the studio or producer’s standpoint optioning is nice because it’s cheaper to option a screenplay than to pay for the production rights outright. So development can start without much of an outlay upfront. Interest from directors, actors etc can be gauged and other things dealt with. And if nothing comes out of it, well the studio or producer isn’t out much. Plus for the screenwriter, if nothing happens, once the option period ends they take the screenplay elsewhere. Where it might get optioned again. And again.

Now if you’ve been paying attention you might notice there’s not a whole ton of original stuff as far as movies go lately. Most movies are adaptations, of books, comics etc or sequels to adaptations. For these movies the screenplays are written by screenwriters hired for the purpose. Sometimes it’s a single screenwriter, sometimes, it’s a collaboration. And it’s not uncommon for a screenplay to get written and then rewritten by someone else. Sometimes rewritten again. And again. Plus screenwriters can be brought in to touch up, polish, doctor, pick a term, a script. Meaning they’re not doing a full rewrite just fixing up some things.

So now that we’ve covered that can look at where women screenwriters end up. The most immediate thing is that with screenplays written on spec not being a big thing these days, women are behind the 8 ball from the word go. Even if a fair number of screenplays are optioned by the studios and such, with few getting produced, a woman screenwriter can have multiple screenplays optioned and that’s it. This is also where bias starts showing up in a big way. Specifically the bias that women only write certain types of movies (same bias is present in publishing). And it’s expected these movies have certain qualities and elements. So that whole thing about women telling “their stories”? Sounds awesome, but absent a seismic shift in things, it will be limited to sounding awesome.  That seismic shift being, in large part, that the vast majority of movies no longer be targeted towards young male audiences by default. And even if that occurs, that doesn’t mean action, science fiction etc movies written by women will start popping up. Because that takes another shift.

That bias, that women only write certain kinds of movies, is also an issue with adaptations. After all if you think women only write A, B and C and you’re making movie of type D, well you’re not going to call in a woman. It’s why if you pour over blockbusters of the last many years, you’ll notice there aren’t many women’s names to see in the screenwriting credits. Even when a movie might seem like a woman’s perspective would be nice, hello Wonder Woman, the work falls to men (that’s not to say I take issue with the writing for Wonder Woman, I don’t). So even where there is a lot of work, women can find themselves with little of it. Purely because, the work there is, is not work there seen as doing/capable of.

Then there’s the last little thing, a woman can write a screenplay, that gets produced and still not have her name in the credits. This because as a movie wanders through development the script gets rewritten to the point the original screenwriter’s name no longer appears (there are rules regarding this, but we’ll leave them aside here). This of course also effects men, but when women already have such a smaller place it’s more deleterious to their standing. So even if a woman gets a screenplay written on spec produced or gets hired to write an adaptation, doesn’t mean anyone is going to know. Which at the end of the day, is a big part of the problem. That women can do work, get paid for the work and yet find men’s names where their’s could’ve been. And the whole issue of script rewrites is a thing unto itself. People on the side of studios and producers will swear they’re important and justified. People not on that side, may not be so accommodating to the idea.

So while women screenwriters face issues like women directors, cinematographers etc, they also face unique issues. Also worth remembering the bias that effects screenwriters also effects others, after all if women don’t/can’t write certain types of movies, how likely are they to get to direct them? Though the issue doesn’t effect the two roles the same way. And even doing away with the bias entirely that still wouldn’t fix everything for women screenwriters. The paucity of screenplays written on spec being produced hits women hard. Because it grants so few chances for women to do truly original work. Which means to really get equal standing for women, the entire industry will have to change. But at this point, given other things, there appears little choice left. Thankfully.



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