Creative Decision Making within the Contemporary Hollywood Studio System by Dr. Alex Ross

This is an article I wrote for the prestigious Journal of Screenwriting that was peer-reviewed, in other words, subjected to intense scrutiny by some of the leading people in the field to ensure that the content is AAA.

Creative decision-making within the contemporary Hollywood studio System by Dr. Alex Ross

This article seeks to contribute to the current debate about the decision-making process within the Hollywood studio system and the marketing-driven quest to micromanage the creative process in order to manufacture more consistently profitable films. The author outlines the process to which scripts are subjected in order to determine their suitability for production and how this impacts the quality of the scripts. There are compelling questions about whether the current business model hinders relevant, definitive cultural narratives and how this affects both the quality and profitability of contemporary films. In addition to considering the existing literature dealing with the topic, this article also draws on the author’s fifteen years experience in Hollywood as a screenwriter, agent and producer.

Author’s Note: While the preferred reference term in academic studies is ‘film’, the industry uses ‘movie’ to refer to a commercial or studio project and ‘film’ for independently produced and financed projects. For the purposes of this article, the term ‘movie’ will be used throughout, while ‘film’ will only be employed when the reference is specific to an independent project.

Introduction: In articulating a critical counterpoint to the self-mythologizing hubris of the venerable Hollywood ‘dream factory’, one recognizes that a movie’s potentially subversive and coercive effects can be subtly manifested in carefully layered textures and texts. ​

However, in order to achieve a truly comprehensive integrative analysis, scholars must also turn to the decision-making processes utilized and relied on within the Hollywood studio system and consider such questions as what makes a paradigmatic movie and who decides to make (i.e. greenlight) movies – decisions of taste and art made against the imposing economic and financial backdrop of the industry. This article focuses specifically on the important connection between script quality and movie success.

Hollywood is a door leading to a thousand doors”

― Kensington Roth

In examining the quality-control system Hollywood movie studios have used since the early 1980s to assess a screenplay’s potential for production, one must investigate the corporate decision-making hierarchy determining what types of movies are made and the various factors increasingly affecting that process One could also address whether less restrictive creative parameters would lead to less expensive and, ultimately, more profitable, movies that would appeal more convincingly in terms of taste aesthetics to a viewing public were not only demographics matter but also a growing individualized willingness to eschew dogmatic, elitist, popular, conventional and comfortable aesthetic tendencies. This article addresses the detrimental effect on originality arising as a direct result of a corporate-driven creative process that persistently homogenizes the studio’s creative output in order to placate risk-averse shareholders. The article also seeks to expand the boundaries for continuing inquiry, specifically to assess collateral damage, such as the stifling of writers’ creativity, the specter of self-censorship, and the preponderance for formulaic screenplays.

As a starting point, Knudsen (2005) writes: ​

Perhaps the notion of a few still thinking they are arbiters of taste and quality from a central position […] is outdated and possibly counterproductive. Hasn’t the history of the arts and sciences shown us that almost all innovators emerged from outside centralized institutional frameworks and were often ignored, if not rejected, by the very people who claimed to be the arbiters of quality and taste?

The dialectic concerns whether the decision-making process by ‘committee’ at today’s studios is a more effective proposition. Without a doubt, great artistic personalities from Charlie Chaplin to Quentin Tarantino were all innovators who stepped out of the conventional framework and went on to redefine the moviemaking parameters of their respective eras. Today, a consequence of the increasing complexity of the Hollywood studios’ moviemaking process has been to inhibit the inflow of similarly independent talent, restricting the vital integration of fresh creative DNA into the system. In a Catch- 22-type syllogistic sequence, a neophyte writer or director will rarely garner a studio’s attention unless he or she makes a movie garnering considerable financial success. While some would argue that it is the responsibility of the independent sector to make films addressing the discourse within contemporary society more eloquently, the truth is that independent production companies have been increasingly unable to raise the marketing and advertising funds to facilitate theatrical releases (but can access television, cable, home video releases, and the Internet to generate revenue). Without a viable marketing platform, a film cannot realize its financial potential and a young filmmaker’s career will rarely progress.

​For example, Biskind (2005) observes that Miramax throughout its 31-year history managed to drive countless films to box office success by implementing extremely aggressive and creative marketing techniques, consequently launching the careers of many filmmakers/screenwriters including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Quentin Tarantino.

Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein allowed themselves to be driven by the corporate philosophy of the Walt Disney Studios, which according to Biskind made them abnegate their independent film roots in favor of big-ticket items including The English Patient (1996), Scary Movie (2000) and The Aviator (2004). Miramax’s change of direction was a catalyst in the loss of interest in the indie market, with the result that budgets invested in these projects plummeted and many films did not get picked up for distribution, thus short-circuiting the careers of some film-makers.

Industry executive Howard Stringer says, ‘To make complex human drama come alive on the screen and convey insights and intimacy in a darkened movie theater, is still an art form. It’s not easy, and it requires great courage and carefulness on the part of everybody involved. The question is whether the corporate mindset of studios allows such movies to be made and permits a catalyzing role for the screenwriter in the process. ​

The English Patient 1996

The Current Status of the Screenwriting Career: Analysing Creativity

Do writers and executives speak the same language? As acknowledged by Knudsen, many studios today rely on the prescriptions of so-called script ‘gurus’ like Robert McKee, Linda Seger, and Syd Field to give executives, who often have limited or no literary background, an insight into what they presume will impress at the box office. The result is a perpetuating framework of rules established by the studios to which writers must adhere… ​

Read the rest of this article, free with the purchase of The Studio Manual.

What you’ve read in this blog post is only a portion of the article originally published in The Journal of Screenwriting which details how a script makes its way through the studio system and what you can do to make it be championed by a senior executive. Receive the full article as a bonus with the purchase of The Studio Manual, which offers insider insight on the criteria studios look for when doing screenwriting coverage. Only $9.99. Email to request your copy.


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​ i) According to Pierre Bourdieu (1984: 231), the taste is a classification system that governs the relationship with objectified capital.He argues that change in the system of goods induces a change in tastes and that a change in tastes will lead to a transformation in the field of production – in this case, movies.

ii) Miramax, founded in New York (1979) as a distribution company, segued into production. It was considered for a long time as the champion of independent filmmakers.

iii) Stringer was named chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation of America (including Columbia and Tri-Star studios) in 1998.

iv) The definition of ‘success’ used for the purposes of this article is the Hollywood studio system definition, which considers it to be foremost a question of box office revenue.

v) Fortis Entertainment of Beverly Hills.

vi) Darryl Zanuck and Spyros Skouras are former studio heads. Jack Warner, co-founder of Warner Bros. studio.

vii) Richard Natale is a freelance economic reporter who covers the film industry for The Los Angeles Times.

viii) Lucy Fisher’s company, Red Wagon Productions, oversaw the Academy Award-winning film Gladiator. Fisher began her career in the late 1970s as a story editor for Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Productions. She has held various senior executive positions at MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., and Sony, where she was vice-chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group.

ix) The typical Hollywood studio system hierarchy starts with creative executives to director of creative affairs, vice-president of creative affairs, senior vice-president of creative affairs to executive senior vice-president of creative affairs. Some prefer to call them development executives, which is a purely semantic difference.

x) Peter Bart, a long-time film executive, is now editor-in-chief of Variety, the entertainment industry’s venerable trade magazine. xi Mechanic is now an independent producer. He was chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment from 1994 to 2000. xii Farrell co-founded NRG in 1978.

(c) Dr. Alex Ross, 2021

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