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Emma Thompson Channels Raymond Chandler While Talking About 'Content'

By Nate Parker | Film | September 26, 2023 |

By Nate Parker | Film | September 26, 2023 |


Emma Thompson and Raymond Chandler aren’t two names one expects to hear together unless Thompson adapts Double Indemnity for modern audiences. Chandler died three weeks before Thompson was born in 1959. But they had similar concerns over the commodification of screenwriters despite the decades and strides in filmmaking that separated their careers. Emma recently shared hers during an in-conversation with Creative Arts Agency (CAA) head Bryan Lourd at the Royal Television Society conference.

“‘Content,’ what do you mean ‘content’? It’s just rude, actually. It’s just a rude word for creative people. I know there are students in the audience: you don’t want to hear your stories described as ‘content’ or your acting or your producing described as ‘content.’ That’s just like coffee grounds in the sink or something. It’s, I think, a very misleading word. And I think it’s one of the things that maybe the language around the way in which we speak to one another, and the way in which the executives speak to creatives, the way in which we have to understand one another and combine better.”

It’s a solid summary of a problem that began with dime novels in the late 19th century and swiftly evolved with the motion picture and broadcast television industry. When the bulk of your work is treated as “content” rather than substance, and the credit and profit for writers’ work goes primarily to the studios, producers, and directors — and to the actors who also aren’t fairly compensated for their work - writers themselves are devalued. Their words are the foundation of every project, but they are treated as unskilled labor rather than invaluable to the project’s success. Worse, studios expect to make as much or more off the labor of less-talented writers or by removing the vitality a great writer brings to a script. We’ve seen several recent examples from the superhero genre. Morbius, written by the same hacks as The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt, is a perfect example of the former; The Flash, written by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, Birds of Prey), Jonathan Goldstein, and John Francis Daley (shared writing duties on Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and Spider-Man: Homecoming) proves the latter. Goldstein and Daley bailed on the project as a parade of directors, including Seth Graeme-Smitch and Rick Famuyiwa, came and went because of “creative differences” with the studio. Too many projects are little more than elaborate, profiteering shell games rather than anything of substance. And I don’t intend that as a dig on “trash.” I love trash. Most of my favorite movies are, objectively speaking, garbage. They’re still great. But regardless of their artistic value or lack thereof, they’re treated the same by financiers only interested in their return.

Seventy-eight years ago, one of the grandmasters of fiction wrote a piece for The Atlantic that shared Thompson’s sentiment. Raymond Chandler, writer of 7 novels, at least six screenplays, and numerous short fiction works had a great deal to say on the subject of Hollywood’s reliance on and disregard for its writers. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, despite its occasional sexism and dismissal of what he considers trash writing, but the crux is here:

Hollywood has no right to expect such miracles, and it does not deserve the men who bring them to pass. Its conception of what makes a good picture is still as juvenile as its treatment of writing talent is insulting and degrading. Its idea of “production value” is spending a million dollars dressing up a story that any good writer would throw away. Its vision of the rewarding movie is a vehicle for some glamorpuss with two expressions and eighteen changes of costume, or for some male idol of the muddled millions with a permanent hangover, six worn-out acting tricks, the build of a lifeguard, and the mentality of a chicken-strangler. Pictures for such purposes as these, Hollywood lovingly and carefully makes. The good ones smack it in the rear when it isn’t looking.

For all this too there are colorable economic reasons. The motion picture is a great industry as well as a defeated art. Its technicians are now in their third generation, its investments are world-wide, its demand for material is insatiable. Five hundred pictures a year must be made or the theaters will be dark, countless people will be thrown out of work, financial organizations will totter, and bankers will start jumping out of their office windows again. Hollywood does not possess enough real talent to make one tenth of five hundred pictures, even if it could find stories to base them on. But the rest must be made somehow, and they are made—with great effort and bitter struggle, with the hardening of many arteries and the graying of many hairs, and with the slow deadening of such real ability as could have been saved by happier tasks.

Chandler’s contempt for most writers and screen presences aside, the issues he raised still exist. Movies and television are an industry, and like all industries, employ a vast number of people paid little more than subsistence wages while funneling as much money as possible to producers, bankers, and studio executives. Maximizing profits means inflated budgets for bad movies while resting studio laurels on their comparatively few prestige releases. If anything, the ratio of good-to-garbage has become steadily worse as studios dump their worst projects directly on streaming platforms, each of which is also padding their libraries with their own, often terrible productions. The latest twist sees Max, Disney, and others deleting their own freshly completed projects entirely for tax breaks and to avoid paying writers and actors residuals. Chandler’s bitter words came after he watched the Screen Writers’ Guild spend decades fighting to get even a Minimum Basic Agreement as a standard for contracts between writers and producers. He felt ignored by the studio after his own work on Double Indemnity, which earned him an Academy nomination, even though it was his writing that earned the film so much acclaim. He was also a recovering alcoholic who’d fallen off the wagon, which may have played a part in the studio’s efforts to keep him from the limelight he thought he deserved. Regardless of his alcohol consumption, he wasn’t wrong about studio efforts to keep screenwriters behind the scenes, unless that writer also directs.

With signs the WGA’s strike is coming to an end, it’ll be interesting to see if any of the studios’ concessions address the issues Thompson and Chandler raised. Maybe if studios are forced to pay writers a living wage, they’ll be less likely to consign their best work to the trash and fill their libraries with bargain basement streamer garbage that all looks was shot through the same Insta filter. I won’t hold my breath, though. They’ve made it 100 years treating the bulk of their writers as an afterthought. Why change now?