Not long ago, screenwriting was an art crafted for two screen sizes: the big and the small. Within the past 20 years, screenwriters’ opportunities have expanded across media platforms, going from films and television shows to comic books, video games, virtual reality and even interactive projection experiences that have no screens at all.
Cinema Professors Julian Hoxter and Daniel Bernardi analyze what these developments mean for today’s film industry and tomorrow’s professionals in their new book, Off the Page: Screenwriting in the Era of Media Convergence (University of California Press).
A study-in-industry book, Off the Page addresses issues that students, professors, industry professionals and scholars must face when adapting the future of their career to the future of cinema.
“This highly accessible but knowing production study of screenwriters provides a much-needed antidote to the plethora of 'how-to' books, workshops and blogs currently flooding the marketplace,” says Denise Mann, a professor of film, television and digital media at University of California, Los Angeles.
Bernardi attended Pima Community College and University of Arizona, while Hoxter went to University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., before both studied film at the graduate level at University of California, Los Angeles.
Hoxter co-wrote Kiss Me Again (2006) starring Jeremy London. Bernardi runs the Veterans Documentary Corps on campus; his three-volume encyclopedia, Race in American Film (edited with Michael Green), is the latest in a body of publications on race relations in cinema.
Addressing gaps in industry knowledge
As experienced filmmakers, scholars and professors, Bernardi and Hoxter spotted a frustrating gap in industry knowledge and film school curriculum caused by the industry’s uncertain future.
Generally, there are two types of screenwriting books, Hoxter explains. There are “how-to” screenwriting books and a recent crop of scholarly tomes published by university presses. But neither address the state of the craft in Hollywood’s changing industry.
As the legitimacy for writing for media other than film and television increases, so does the competition for fewer assignments and spots within the Writers Guild of America West, the labor union representing and protecting media writers in Hollywood, Hoxter and Bernardi say.
The authors posit that more writers are working outside of the union than 20 years ago, as the older industry of the guild loses relevance in today’s changing media landscape for new writers.
“This is why film schools have to change,” Bernardi urges. “Someone’s going to write a story for virtual reality. … So who’s going to teach those people how to write it? And how are those people going to be protected by the guild? History is being played out right now.”
Engaging multiple audiences
Bernardi says Off the Page engages the interest of both lay and academic audiences.
Film professors and their screenwriting students can learn about post-graduation career possibilities. Established writers can learn solutions to why their work is not being selected. Media scholars can study the structure of the entertainment industry critically from political, economical and sociological perspectives during what the authors call this “era of media convergence.”
‘The students are what make this university’
Did Hoxter’s and Bernardi’s students at SF State inspire their book?
“Absolutely,” Hoxter says. “It comes from not only things students have asked directly, but also my sense in which screenwriting curricula don’t prepare students for the world that they’re going to find when they get to the industry.”
Both professors expressed admiration for their students’ intelligence, hard work, energy and willingness to break the rules of filmmaking.
“I’m also deeply impressed by how far and how fast they move when they have the incentive to do so,” Hoxter says. “ … So many of them improve and just fly when they’re doing something that excites them and interests them and they just want to absorb. And that not only is an inspiration in general, but works as a kind of incentive to match them.”
“The students are what make this university,” Bernardi adds. “Here’s the secret that most teachers do not want young folk to know: If [teachers are] honest with themselves, they get more from teaching than their students get from them teaching.
A screenplay of their own
After the release of Off the Page, Bernardi and Hoxter are finishing a screenplay of their own — a feature-length espionage thriller screenplay they attempted to write simultaneously with the book.
Although new technologies will give screenwriting more “homes” in the future, the universal core of what interests an audience will endure.
“Filmmaking has been enabled by ‘micro-budget,’ by the fact that the online distribution and cheap digital technology has democratized media in a way that simply wasn’t possible 20 years ago,” Hoxter concludes.
“What goes into making a compelling story has not changed and is not likely to change,” Bernardi states. “We’re storytelling creatures. But where you can engage a story, the length at which a story unfolds … that’s radically changing. The business of Hollywood storytelling is changing radically — so if you love stories, these are super scary but exciting times.”
— Gospel Cruz
Images: Daniel Bernardi (left) and Julian Hoxter. Photos by Gospel Cruz. Book cover courtesy of University of California Press.