- Writing for Hire: Unions, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue by Catherine L. Fisk
Catherine L. Fisk
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016
x + 308 pp., $35.00 cloth
In her persuasively argued study, Catherine L. Fisk examines the differences in authorship across advertising, radio, television, and film. In advertising, acknowledged as a learned profession, the copywriter is nameless. What matters are the client's interests, not the copywriter's identity. As the agencies created radio programming in the 1930s and 1940s for soaps and dramatic programs, the writer emerged as an employee who deserved to be credited for his or her contribution, although initially there was some reluctance to identify soap opera writers for fear of destroying "the illusion that the stories were real" (105). Then there was the matter of repeating a show or adapting it for another medium like film.
A one-time airing was one thing; reuse was something else. Reuse meant additional compensation, which in turn required a bargaining agent, the Radio Writers Guild, to prevent writers from being shortchanged when a show was repeated or became the basis of a film, as happened when the popular radio show Duffy's Tavern (1941– 51) inspired the 1945 Paramount film of the same name. In television, the situation became even more complex, with repeats, reruns, and spinoffs. The writers wanted a share in the profits, which was accomplished through residuals. Fisk is especially adept at explaining the way the demand for a percentage—even one percent of the gross—culminated in the policy of residual payments, which the public thought only went to actors. Writing for hire may lack the cachet of writing for publication, but residuals are to television writers what additional royalties are to authors whose works are reprinted: monetary recognition for their art.
Film is a special case, particularly among those who subscribe to the auteur theory, which, if implemented by the industry, would relegate the screenwriter to anonymity. The auteur theory holds that the director is the true "author" of the film, in the sense that a director can impose his or her vision on the material, personalizing the film. Thus one can speak of an "Alfred Hitchcock film," a "John Ford film," and certainly a "Steven Spielberg film." These directors were unique. Most, however, are faceless, deserving of screen credit but not authorship.
During Hollywood's Golden Age, the studios took an assembly-line approach to screenwriting. A few privileged writers could work from home, but most worked at the studio in a writer's building where they were expected to produce like any other employee. One or two writers working on a project might have been unaware that another team had been assigned to the same film—the idea being that each could contribute something unique. One might excel at characterization, another at dialogue, a third at humor. The script for Casablanca (1942) is a perfect example. Seven writers were involved in the script's creation, with screen credit going to the Epstein brothers, Julius [End Page 100] and Philip, and to Howard Koch, who made the most significant contributions. Today, when a screenplay is the result of drafts by different writers, one of whom is denied credit, the matter goes to arbitration. If, as Fisk shows, using an actual example without naming names, the credits read "written by X and Y & Z" (3), it is evident that X and Y worked as a team, and Z wrote separately. Anyone else's contribution was deemed too minor to acknowledge. Writing for the movies may pay well, even when the script never reaches the screen, but it also requires the acceptance of a system that will pay but may not play.
Fisk ends Writing for Hire with a discussion of the blacklist that arose when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its investigation of communist subversion of the movie industry in 1947, specifically targeting screenwriters who had supposedly injected communist propaganda into their scripts. The result was the most egregious affront to authorship in the twentieth century. The studios refused to employ anyone who would not cooperate with...