Letter from Hollywood: Writers get booted up and bitching

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The Independent Culture
Take 10,000 frustrated Hollywood screenwriters. Let them discover the Internet at roughly the same time. Result: an explosion of storytellers itching to share their grievances.

The Internet has returned written communication to something akin to the pre-newspaper days of pamphleteering - it hops with rabid gossip on the injustices of the elite. At www.wordplayer.com, senior screenwriters such as Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio heartily chomp on the hands that feed them. Admittedly, it is easier to speak out when you're in the big league - Ted and Terry had a hand in nearly every successful film this year, from the execrable Godzilla ("it wasn't our fault") to the wildly camp Zorro ("we're really proud of that").

They write with particular glee about the nightmare that was Godzilla. Terry urges us to forget the blanket of pollution that sits over Los Angeles and asks: "Has anyone become aware of the Brain Cloud? Odourless, colourless and covering all of Burbank, Studio City and North Hollywood, it robs everyone on the studio payroll of 30 per cent of their IQ."

They merrily admit they took the Godzilla job for the money - who wouldn't? Writers' wages are not to be sneezed at. Not that it was easy. Godzilla, of the double eyelid and the swishing tail, always lacked personality. So Ted and Terry invent an antagonist for Godzilla, to ensure that the audience is rooting for the right reptile.

All goes well until they get a call from a studio executive. "Look guys - what about a third monster? A friend for Godzilla to knock around with." The budget is already stretched up around the $150m mark. "Can you afford it?" they ask. It turns out that the studio doesn't own the sequel rights to Godzilla, but if they invent a friend he can take over: Godzilla II without Godzilla. But Ted and Terry are replaced by other writers. Godzilla loses his opponent and spawns thousands of little Godzillas. And the movie underperforms at the box office anyway.

I e-mail Terry Rossio, who responds in a flash.

"Why haven't you been sued by interested parties?" I ask.

"The first Amendment," he replies.

"Aren't you in danger of never eating lunch in this town again?"

"People working in the film business don't have time to visit web sites. And if they do ... it turns out the town actually respects creative passion."

Terry may be wrong on one point. Studio executives are beginning to tap into these hot sites of gossip. They are absolutely paranoid, for instance, about another Hollywood code-breaker: Harry Jay Knowles. Harry has been more talked about than many producers since his website, www.aint-it-cool-news.com, first appeared.

Harry (it may not be his real name) from Austin, Texas (maybe) has spies all over the industry. Their favourite trick is to get into test screenings of new films and write reviews under names such as "The Film Professor". They do not talk about fragmented narrative or discursive dialogue, but about whether they liked it or not. On Warner Brothers' The Avengers The Film Professor writes: "Cool characters. Cool design. Nooooooooooooo story." This kind of thing upsets the studios. They had been trying to keep a news blackout on the film, including reviews, until after its opening weekend. TV and newspapers will go along with this sort of thing. Not so Harry and his friends. They can't keep their mouths shut.

The web has its own tongue and it won't be tied.