Hollywood the screenplay. Everybody's got one or is working on one or at least thinking about one.
And little wonder. First-time screenwriters are making million-dollar deals for unsolicited motion picture scenarios.
As one might expect, a burgeoning cottage industry screenwriting workshops has sprung up in Los Angeles and other cities.
The businesses are a bit like the merchants who sold picks and shovels to Gold Rush miners the income is sure and steady, and you don't have to do the shoveling.
"The screenplay has become a lottery ticket," said 35-year-old Jeff Gordon, who started a program called Writers Bootcamp in 1989.
This year alone, Gordon and his instructors will teach some 1,000 students, for which they will generate revenues of more than $750,000. Gordon is projecting even higher revenues for 1998.
"We have been growing at 40 percent each year," said Gordon, who charges $750 for a six-week workshop that is conducted in L.A., San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
Business is so good that next March, the Los Angeles Bootcamp, which currently convenes at a Holiday Inn in Beverly Hills, will move to a 10,000-square-foot building in the Westside artists' colony at Bergamot Station.
"They found a niche in Hollywood, and they are filling it. God bless them; it's the American way," said Alan Gasmer, head of William Morris Agency's literary department for motion pictures.
Whether the courses can actually help students embark on a successful screenwriting career is a matter of debate. Without innate talent, some believe, the best scriptwriting course in the world may not make a difference.
"My heart goes out to these people," said Lionel Chetwynd, who has written several feature screenplays, including "Hanoi Hilton," and once taught screenwriting at the NYU Film School in New York and the UCLA Extension program.
"They want to do this urgently and undauntingly," he said. "They may get the confidence that they can do it at these places. If it works for you, it works for you."
Others are less enamored. "They have mastered the structure," said one agent at Creative Artists Agency, "but they really have nothing to say. They are very predictable."
USC Film School Professor James Nathan, who teaches screenwriting, thinks the schools can teach writers to be a commercial success but little more.
"My feeling is that these courses are great for commercial Hollywood mainstream thrillers and comedies," he said. "But if you want something else that is edgy or challenging, that is a different matter."
Workshops are distinctly different from screenwriting programs at the American Film Institute or the film schools at UCLA and USC. The college programs are much longer and lead to degrees in filmmaking. Workshops are short-flight projects, often weekend programs where a lecturer teaches his techniques during all-day sessions.
Gordon said his Writers Bootcamp is different from other schools in that its chief focus is to get students to complete a screenplay during the course period.
"Ultimately the secret to writing is writing," said Gordon. "If there isn't a script, there is not a lot that will change in your life."
Gordon's program entails one three-hour class session each week for six weeks, and requires students to do 10 hours of outside writing each week.
Military terms are used to describe each of the sessions Basic Training, which centers on writing strategy; the Obstacle Course, which focuses on character development; Escalation, which introduces conflict; Trench Warfare, which develops scene work; Crossfire, which tests the motivations of the characters; and D-Day, or rewriting.
At a recent Bootcamp session in Beverly Hills, students clearly smelled the paycheck. Many were already in the entertainment industry or a related field, like Josh Levinson, a vice president for production at Danny DeVito's Jersey Films.
"I wanted to write something for myself," Levinson said. "Maybe a small film that I could direct. The idea here is to get it on the page."
Some concerns have been raised about teachers who "cherry pick" their students' best work and produce the projects themselves.
Gordon notes in his publicity material that he is producing the film "Rubicon" with Debra Hill, which is based on a screenplay by one of his students. Gordon also is producing "A Boyfriend for Christmas," a TV movie for ABC Productions, which is also based on a student's script.
"I am uncomfortable about this (process)" said USC's Nathan. "We make an effort to promote our students' productions, films like 'Air Force One,' 'Hand that Rocks the Cradle,' and the upcoming 'Firestorm,' but we are not producers. I think this is a conflict of interest."
But Gordon defended the practice, saying that only after a student takes his class and a script has impressed him does he meet the student.
"I really am more interested in being of assistance to an alumnus' career than making a slam dunk," he said. "It would be a conflict of interest if I was doing this during the course."
Agent Gasmer was not fazed either.
"This town is inherently filled with conflicts of interest," he said. "But these people (students) should know what's going on upfront."
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