After I told my story of quitting screenwriting, I realized I could write a book on my experiences. I’ve distilled a few important additions I want to make to that article and put them into this post.
I was never the only one
The film industry is far from devoid of people who want to write better roles for women and other “minorities.” I was never the only one arguing for change. Not only students but employed writers, producers and directors at every level of the game want change, and they will tell you so if you discuss your desire for change. But then they tell you why change can’t happen, and it’s always the same tired arguments that don’t really stand. It once took me a year to get a producer to understand that if the industry has never made mainstream movies featuring female leads that got promoted the same way as the movies featuring men, you cannot claim the audience doesn’t like them. It’s like saying “We offered them apples and apples. They chose apples. Therefore, they don’t like oranges.”
And he was one of the ones who wanted change. He just believed all the usual arguments about how the audience wouldn’t tolerate change. You know, the arguments about how the “right” audience wouldn’t go see a fantastic suspense/sci-fi thriller if it starred Sigourney Weaver instead of some dude, and so on and so forth. You know the examples we’ve all named that prove the dominant theories imperfect, at the very least. They were always dismissed as non-recurring phenomena.
This is, in fact, why I left. If all these people – no, it’s not just Joss Whedon, though he’s one of the few even attempting to walk the walk – at various levels of power in the industry couldn’t change it, how many sell-out scripts would I have to sell (damaging my own credibility) to acquire enough power to make the films I believe to this day the audience wants to see? Could it even be done? I didn’t see how. Conversely, what if I started running websites and became a millionaire – something screenwriters rarely become? I could become a financier and call the shots on how a movie I funded gets made and marketed. That was how to get the power to change things: not by climbing up a ladder with all the Old Guard on higher rungs dropping bricks on your head every step of the way, but by accruing power outside the system and eventually meeting them at the top of the ladder with something they very much want in tow.
I wouldn’t have left if there weren’t so many other people already working within the system for change. I figured they needed someone on the outside with the same agenda. This site is my contribution to raising the audience’s awareness of how it’s being manipulated, and why change isn’t happening.
Screenwriting: almost as much power as the janitor
When Stephen King writes a women-friendly book, it stays women-friendly throughout the editing process. You can be sure that what Stephen King writes represents his own thinking processes. When a lowly screenwriter pens a women-friendly script, however, it gets rewritten and there is nothing she can do about it.
One of the first things you learn when you start reading about selling scripts is that when you sell a script, you can try to negotiate a contract that specifies you get to do the rewrites. But if you refuse to put in that sex scene they want that totally throws off your story, they’ll just hire someone else to do it. If you refuse to make your black characters white or your women characters men or to reduce your developed not-white-male characters into vague supporters of your white male lead’s agenda, they’ll just hire someone else to do it. And your name will end up attached to a piece of shit that possibly even violates your personal ethics. There is no guaranteed way to avoid this. Not one.
Even at this stage in his career, Joss Whedon has to play ball with the people who make the rules. He’s chosen his battles very carefully – otherwise, he’d have accomplished even fewer steps in the right directions than he’s managed so far. If he didn’t give them some of what they want, they’d just have found someone else to rewrite him.
Writers really don’t have enough power to affect change on their own. Therefore, many of them try to become producers and directors, only to find that now they’re responsible for the success of a movie on which the entire hard-working crew is depending. Suddenly, not only do you feel pressured to play it a bit more safe for their sake, but you realize the studio won’t back you up with a good marketing campaign if they don’t see the brilliance of this new direction you’re headin. Without marketing, most any movie or TV show will tank… and be added to the list entitled “Movies That Prove People Only Want Stories About White Men.” Not only might your crusading harm the income of people depending on you; you might even harm your cause.
If all Hollywood needed were more people who think like you and me, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There are plenty of Hollywood insiders (including white men) who want change, who want to make movies about fascinating people who aren’t white men. The problem is that too many people involved in the very collaborative process of film buy into the belief that the audience won’t accept anything but white men’s stories, and there’s a vicious cycle preventing the industry from taking the next step.
“But I think they’re right…”
I believe there are enough “exceptions” to prove audiences are more tolerant of non-white-male leads than Hollywood thinks. This is not to say audiences are less sexist or racist than Hollywood thinks; see Hyperphonics’ eloquent comment on that. My argument is simply that I perceive proof among all these “exceptions” that such movies can be profitable. Why does that matter?
Because if you make enough movies featuring people other than white men doing the same interesting things white men have been allowed to do in film, those movies become normal, and then the idea that people other than white men can be interesting becomes normal. Yes, some of the audience will be seeing the movie for the same ugly reasons that virulent white racists enjoy watching African-American sports figures or misogynists enjoy screwing women, but eventually you’ll have a whole generation of kids who doesn’t remember when only white men had stories. What will that generation produce in its art and its politics? What will its women and “minorities” achieve? Bigotry will never go away completely – I’m afraid humans are inherently xenophobic assholes aspiring to be something better and often failing – but at least we can render some expressions of it abnormal. We can saturate a market dominated by one viewpoint with many other viewpoints, without everyone losing their shirts. Ideals and profit are not mutually exclusive.