Publicists get ink for screenwriters

Special to The Times

If a screenwriter turns out a brilliant screenplay and there's no publicist to flog it, does it still make a sound at awards time? Of course, we'd like to think that artistic excellence always rises to the top but it certainly doesn't hurt to have someone reminding people that, as the writer, you actually contributed something of note to the film.

Beyond that, like any other industry player, a writer wants to make the most of an opportunity -- public kudos being the most potent -- to parlay sudden visibility into an improved career situation.

"As far as I'm concerned, the reason I represent anyone is to help support their career and their career choices," says PMK/HBH publicist Catherine Olim, who recently took on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Iris Yamashita ("Letters From Iwo Jima") as a client. "And if positive exposure that they might not have had otherwise on a project helps them get their next project, then that's the reason for hiring us."

Often, a newer writer's agent, manager or lawyer will try to persuade the writer to hire a publicist to up his or her profile and strategize exposure, such as pressuring the studio to put their names in the film's print ads and include them in event Q&As; and panels, something the writer would likely never do on his own behalf for fear of negative associations.

A good publicist cannot only make sure that the writer is included in any major stories about the film, but also make the most of awards season events -- like the academy nominees luncheon -- that are otherwise devoted to actors.

(An added bonus from using publicists is coaching in publicity-speak. One publicist points out that since writers are used to expressing themselves on the page, they often need guidance on how to deliver anecdotes about the film's production or the writing process when talking to the media, as well as tips on toning down the gripe factor when discussing his or her creative relationship with the studio, director or actors. In other words: positive, positive, positive -- an attitude writers often have difficulty expressing when discussing their experiences on a film.)

Ronni Chasen has long represented such writers as Robin Swicord ("Memoirs of a Geisha"), Jim Sheridan ("In America") and Julian Fellowes, whom she helpfully steered to an Oscar win for his "Gosford Park" screenplay in 2002. "We tried to create a very focused campaign that illuminated for people the fact that this was such an intricately crafted screenplay on every level," Chasen says. "It was important for people to be able to hear from him how this was created. For me, it's bringing into focus the writer's contribution."

Usually, the studio publicity department will handle media and other requests for writers around the release of its movie, but since writers are almost never the face of a film, they often get low priority behind actors, producers and directors. A particularly powerful agent may be able to pressure the studio into hiring a publicist for the writer, but this is rare.

And unlike wins for best picture, director or the acting categories, a screenplay Oscar does nothing to bounce a film's box office post-awards. So, though an Oscar win can bring the individual screenwriter a greater creative autonomy, more high-profile meetings and a pay raise, the studio has little incentive to peddle him or her to the media during awards season.

For example, Warner Bros. may throw its weight (and money) behind campaigning for a Martin Scorsese director nod for "The Departed," because this can be translated into additional gross revenue, but it's unlikely to market William Monahan, a WGA Award winner, for his adapted screenplay nomination. A writer like Monahan would have to take matters into his own hands, which he did by hiring Michael Nyman of Bragman Nyman Cafarelli PR.

But many writers hesitate to hire a publicist out of a vocational wariness of self-promotion.

Whereas an actor wouldn't think twice about hiring help to get his name out there, the act of self-promotion is often seen in the screenwriting community as unseemly -- as if it signals an arrogance writers are somehow supposed to be above despite their public marginalization being their most common complaint.

The bottom line is that in the chaotic crush of navigating a career in the industry, it's always nice to have someone in your camp looking out just for you.

"That's why we're all in business," Chasen says. "People want to bring somebody onto their team that can help them strategize and find their way through the awards campaigns. There are many more awards shows, there are more events to go to, there are more opportunities, and you don't want to get lost in the shuffle."

European writers issue a manifesto

As grand declarations go, especially one penned by professional writers, the European Screenwriters Manifesto unveiled in Berlin two weeks ago is about as direct, succinct and no-nonsense as they come. Its first three planks are like sharp gunshots across the bow of the filmmaking industry:

* The screenwriter is an author of the film, a primary creator of the audiovisual work.

* The indiscriminate use of the possessory credit is unacceptable.

* The moral rights of the screenwriter, especially the right to maintain the integrity of a work and to protect it from any distortion or misuse, should be inalienable and should be fully honored in practice.

Wow. It's not quite "we hold these truths to be self-evident," but it gets the blood stirring nonetheless.

Debated and finalized at the first European Conference on Screenwriting last November during the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Greece, the manifesto was signed by 125 writers from 22 European countries. Spearheaded by the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe, which represents 21 national guilds and 9,000 writers, the manifesto was then officially presented in seven different languages at an opening reception on Feb. 9 at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival.

More than 800 writers, producers, actors, legal experts and scholars signed on there, pushing the total past the thousand signatories mark. Every day, 20 to 40 new signatures are added, including those of several high-profile European directors. In fact, anyone can sign it, whether European or not, or a screenwriter or not -- you can join the movement online at www.scenaristes.org.

"What we tried to do by naming it the 'manifesto' is to challenge the international film community and to start a discussion about what has gone wrong and how we could set it right," says Christina Kallas, president of the federation and a screenwriter, story editor, author, producer and teacher. "It is a step in our campaign to give the screenwriter her rightful place, as in the theater and, indeed, in any other form of writing. We hope that it will be an important tool in our efforts to develop and enhance the status of screenwriters."

The manifesto demands commensurate remuneration for any and every ensuing use of the written work and it states that a writer's continuing involvement in the production and promotion of a film is a standard right, not a luxury. Among its additional demands, the manifesto calls upon national governments to support screenwriters with more resources; upon critics, academics and universities to better acknowledge the role of screenwriters in the filmmaking process; and upon festivals and film museums to include the screenwriters' names in program literature and to feature screenwriter-derived tributes and retrospectives, as they do for directors and actors. (To read the entire European Screenwriters Manifesto, go to latimes.com/scriptland or the scenaristes website.)

Much of the federation's declaration mirrors the charter adopted by the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds at a conference held in Los Angeles in 1987 (to which the American writers guilds belong). The manifesto is also a direct response to the Dublin Declaration, adopted by members of the International Assn. of English Speaking Directors Organizations at a meeting in Dublin in 2003, which states that the director is the "primary creator of the audiovisual work."

Though the federation describes its manifesto as a political document, Kallas sees it less as a weapon than an olive branch for creative equity and collaboration. After all, the document acknowledges the cooperative nature of the medium by describing the screenwriter as "an" author, not "the" author. While directors from the older generation remain mostly un-persuaded, Kallas says younger directors seem more open to sharing authorial credit.

The federation plans another presentation at Cannes in May where it hopes to bring on a major actor or actress to become a "godfather" to the manifesto in the international film community.

Whether it gains any traction in Hollywood is another issue altogether, though it clearly echoes some of the WGA's objectives. Will American screenwriters tap into their own revolutionary spirit and add a public voice to their private gripes? If they do, will the independent force of the manifesto dovetail with or distract from the WGA's demands in looming contract negotiations? Have screenwriters already lost so much ground in a decades-long tilt away from their authorial primacy that a movement like this could never be anything more than symbolic?

"It's an important document," says Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter of "Babel," "21 Grams" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" and an enthusiastic booster for the manifesto in the States. "It has to be signed by members of all the world, and this is the beginning."

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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