October 22, 2019

Hollywood Dreams

They told this story at the recent Film and Television Writer’s Conference and swore that it was true.

Two young women, posing as survey researchers, stood outside Ralphs grocery store in Hollywood and asked shoppers, as they left, how their script was going. Sixty-five percent reportedly answered either that they were polishing the last scene or were bogged down, and it was unfinished in their desk drawer. Or simply asked: "How did you know I was working on a script?"

In Los Angeles, making it as a Hollywood writer is one version of the American dream — a highly lucrative one. To a large extent it is a Jewish dream, albeit a subversive one. (More about that later.)

The conference itself, sponsored by the Writers Guild Foundation, was a three-day affair: part pep rally, part occasion for networking. Panels covered everything you wanted to know about the writer’s side of the film and television business, and were staffed by the writing stars, current and past, responsible for most of what appears or has appeared on the television or movie screen. They contributed their time and service gratis, swapped stories and shared experiences with more than 1,000 hopefuls who paid $545 to attend.

The word Jewish never cropped up — this was a professional gathering after all — but the story one writer told of the rabbi cornering him at his stepmother’s funeral, script in hand, beseeching him for an opinion, gives a sense of the conference’s flavor.

Of course the Writers Guild keeps no statistics on race or ethnicity, but not all screenwriters are Jewish, explained Dan Petrie Jr., a writer and director, and a former head of the Writers Guild. He had just chaired a session, called "Breaking and Entering," where a panel of six successful writers explained just how difficult it was to break into the industry, but also just how they each had succeeded.

Petrie, a pleasant, sensitive man, estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of the screenwriters were Jewish, a high percentage given that Jews constituted just 2.5 percent of the U.S. population. In any case, he seemed to imply, it was not significant. Ethnicity was not some underground message that worked its way into scripts.

That feeling was echoed by many of the screenwriters. The industry might have its bizarre side, its funny and cruel stories about insensitive suits and young sadistic executives who were barely literate, but it was all highly professional, not Jewish.

I came away from the three days less than convinced.

Ethnicity seemed to be everywhere I turned. There was, first and last, the humor: Self-deprecating, mocking, irreverent; an unjust world taking it out on the poor (Jewish) writer.

The first thing you have to understand, said Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost," "Deep Impact"), is that there is no access. "Hollywood is closed to you. There is no door that you can enter, or even slip through. The best a writer can do is try and sneak through the crack under the door."

But even that is fairly hopeless. When Rubin first thought he was on the other side of the door — a script accepted, a film made — he discovered nothing had changed. He was still outside the door that didn’t exist. The film had bombed, been yanked from distribution, and now he had a minus credit next to his name.

"Move out to L.A.," a friend from film-school days told him. But weary and out of patience, nearing 40, with a wife and children to support, he decided to give up, to settle for something else and remain in the Midwest.

The next day, he saw an ad listed on the university bulletin board. His house was for sale.

"What’s going on?" he asked his wife.

"I’ve quit my job and put the house up for sale," she said. There’s no living with you, unless you’re a screenwriter.

They sold the house, piled into the car and headed for Los Angeles. Within a week of arriving, he had an agent and an assignment. Apparently everyone in Hollywood knew of him. They had heard of an underground script he had written called "Jacob’s Ladder" that had been published in a film magazine. It had been included in a magazine story about the 10 best film scripts never made. Without quite knowing how it had happened, he was suddenly on the other side of the door.

One writer explained how he had slipped through at a relatively young age. "I had this girlfriend, and she knew a lot of agents," he said. "She took my script and passed it along to 10 of them; nine said no, but the 10th took me on." That agent got him an assignment, then another one, and one after that. And then he was asked to write "Black Hawk Down." He was inside; though he seemed to indicate he no longer had the girlfriend.

One writer had sold a wonderfully funny script for "My Favorite Year," a takeoff on the old Sid Caeser "Your Show of Shows," starring Peter O’Toole. But he had packed it in after that and become a therapist. Now he treated writers suffering from, among other things, writer’s block.

"Writers want to be loved by their parents, just like everyone else, only more so," he explained. "Unfortunately, Hollywood is the last place on earth anyone receives either love or acceptance. That creates a problem for writers," he said, particularly when studio executives behave like parents without an ounce of human affection.

While listening to the successful screenwriters, I thought for a moment they were describing the plight of an earlier generation of Jews trying to find the door that would gain them access to gentile America.

But their advice to all the hopeful writers in the audience was a surprise: Don’t give up. Don’t buy into the system either. Find your own voice. Tell your own stories. For that’s what screenwriters are: Storytellers. That’s the faith to hold fast to, the faith to keep.

There is an irony here, one that slipped by almost unnoticed. The dominant voice in American society is gentile, but our national storytellers are primarily Jewish. Almost by necessity they have adopted a secular stance; indeed at times the popular culture has served as an alternative to religion, be it Christianity or Judaism. One can be Jewish or Christian, for example, and identify with "Seinfeld" and Woody Allen. It is a screenwriter’s version of humanism, to be sure, but also an act of (Jewish) subversion.

There is a final postscript to this tale of Jewish irony. It concerned the Jewish scriptwriters, who have become victims of Hollywood’s demand for youth. Like athletes, many Hollywood writers find that 40 and 50-plus means the door has locked them out once again. Where are they going?

To Germany, of course, where U.S. sitcom writers and screenwriters are in demand. What’s wanted are German counterparts of American pop culture. It is, of course, the ultimate Jewish irony.

Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.