When James Schamus is on a bill, he can generally be trusted to deliver an intellectual reality check to the motion picture business. That’s just what he did tonight in London as the first guest of BAFTA’s 2014 Screenwriters’ Lectures series. Introduced as “renowned autodidact and multihyphenate,” the former Focus Features boss and the author of dozens of screenplays in 25 years of making movies used his 60 minutes at the lectern to reject the use of the word “art” as applied to screenwriting. His evidence began with the birth of the screenplay and meandered through copyright law and German esthetics. But it was a business lecture, not a philosophical one, he stressed. “If there’s one thing I can say, it’s that in 25 years in the movie business, I made money.”
But Hollywood has changed, he said. Waxing on the world of studio moviemaking, he put it bluntly: “Hollywood doesn’t make American movies anymore. Its revenues are only maybe 30%-40% American. Its primary purpose right now is to make movies that 20-year-old Chinese people want to see.”
Schamus started by announcing an intention to be “cranky and ornery” but said it wasn’t his thing to do the “45 minutes of autobiographical humblebrag” that he suspected the sellout audience was expecting. He wouldn’t be parceling out advice as predecessors including David S. Goyer and Tony Gilroy had done. “Put it this way: If you’re an aspiring screenwriter who’s not already screenwriting, you’re probably not an aspiring screenwriter,” he said.
Instead, Schamus focused on “contradictions that drive this need for self-respect and recognition” within screenwriting. He said he disagreed that screenwriters could define themselves as artists “for some cranky but profound reasons.” Screenplays, he said, were born in the early days of silent cinema, out of a need to rein in the excessive spending that had gone into film production. Unlike with a bad production of a play, nobody leaves the movie theater complaining about a terrible film with a great screenplay. And no poet writes a poem “on spec.” There were no esthetic criteria to judge even good screenplays as “art.”
“While we ask for respect as artists,” Schamus said, “we really don’t know what we mean by art.” Screenwriters finishing a screenplay hadn’t written a work of art but rather “124 pages of begging for money and attention.”
It was a talk that went some way toward rationalizing the contradiction in Schamus himself: the executive screenwriter. “The work that we do [as writers] is work that creates, inspires, catalyzes and motivates,” he acknowledged. “But just as importantly, it’s the grounds under which the control, the money, the executives intervene in the most effective way.”
He echoed a common refrain, that TV is the writers’ medium. “Cinema is a director’s medium and a producer’s business,” he said. “On television, the writers are the showrunners. They hire the directors — and what do they call them? Shooters. ‘He’s just a shooter.’ How do they do it? I have no idea.”
But maybe he answered his own question when he declared that cinema was merely “a loss-leader advertisement for a TV program. We’ve been making TV for a long time and calling it cinema because that’s a great marketing ploy.”
Schamus stayed mostly quiet about his own work, but during the audience Q&A he did defend 2003’s Hulk, a poorly received comic-book adaptation that he says he loves because it represents the “bad object” in his and director Ang Lee’s careers. “The bizarre thing is that [Hulk] is actually fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and of course it made money, but it’s seen as the bad object. It was so bad they had to make The Incredible Hulk, but that one made less money!”
There was a plan for a trilogy, he said, but he “quickly decided before anyone made the phone call” to abandon writing Hulk 2. “I had a really cool idea set on a Native American reservation, involving radioactivity, and it was really political. That would have been awesome.”
Schamus didn’t say much about his time at Focus — in a shocking development in October 2013, he was replaced as CEO by Peter Schlessel — but he did note that “the last few years at Focus got very corporate-y” and prevented him from focusing much time on screenwriting. He’s currently at work on the adaptation of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth, which David Heyman is producing at Lionsgate.