Adventurers in the screen trade

December 18, 1998

The THES talks to PhDs who have forsaken the overhead projector for the bright lights of Hollywood

When John Romano is cooking up stories for his television series Party of Five, kicking ideas around with a roomful of young writers, he is apt to feel a bit professorial. The series, a family melodrama soaked in sincerity, was eventually screened by Britain's Channel Four despite reservations that its characters said "I love you'' too often for British audiences. But Romano, an executive producer on the show, says he often feels he is leading a seminar.

"The old-fashioned breakdown of story, character, structure I did 15 years ago in a seminar on George Eliot, and I did it this morning starting up an episode of Party of Five - and I really can't tell the difference,'' he says. About 15 years ago Romano, then an assistant professor at Columbia University, abandoned the academic calling and joined "the industry''.

The author of a book on Dickens and scores of scholarly reviews, he has just written a film in production with actors Ed Harris and Ann Heche. But he is back at the MLA this year, giving a talk on "Nice Work" outside the academy.

Nothing, it seems, has more infuriated graduates than the suggestion that unemployed PhDs should look for work in Hollywood - "prostitute themselves'', some have called it. It is true that good jobs are hard to find in Tinseltown, success is fickle and the atmosphere schizophrenic in a world where fiction is the only reality. But it is not much different from the job market in universities for humanities scholars, say the current crop of thirtysomething scholars driven by the academic job crisis to try their luck in the screen trade.

The pay is erratic, but better, they insist. "There's no such thing as tenure in Hollywood, and I might not make a million dollars,'' says Shakespearean scholar Brad Berens of the University of California at Berkeley. "But the fact is that there is so much money out there.'' Berens, who has just submitted his doctorate, works as a freelance story analyst, or reader, for Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio. He is a stage history consultant to the Norton Shakespeare's companion CD-Rom, and has been published in the Shakespeare Bulletin, Renaissance Quarterly and the intellectual journal Tikkun. Caustic about the "hamster's wheel'' of the humanities job market, he calls himself a "recovering academic'', though he is in constant danger of lapsing into textual habits, like analysing the metaphors of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

Berens's job involves boiling the 120 pages of the standard film script into synopsis and recommendations of one page, one paragraph and one line. He is known as the Shakespeare guy, who gets handed stuff with a literary stamp. He once made the mistake of summarising a novel as an "epistolary'' work, bringing questions from the studio. "When you leave the academy and move to Hollywood, you have to throw away half your vocabulary,'' he says. "But dramatic structure is dramatic structure. I knew what made a good story. I had no idea what made a commercial picture."

For academics making the leap to movies, there is usually a moment of transition, and it does not come without a struggle. John Schliesser, who finished his doctorate at Berkeley in 1994, began by rewriting an obscure Orson Welles script for a production company. He had got a job at the University of San Francisco after two years, but was deeply disappointed when tenure did not follow.

He took a leave of absence, and is still working with University of California Press on a book about intertextuality. But he says what "tipped the balance'' towards the film industry was being offered a screen adaptation of a Korean play about the emotional fallout of Hiroshima. "The bottom line was I was getting paid to write something,'' he says. "The entertainment industry is a booming industry, so it's viable.'' Ron Alcalay, another Berkeley PhD, says "there's a part of me that still wants to go to the MLA''. Alcalay has had a life-long interest in film: he wrote a screenplay as part of his masters degree and is trying his luck again. "It's very hard breaking into the industry,'' he says. He has worked briefly in a talent agency, and has written promotional spots for soap operas.

Few Hollywood wannabees end up in a Beverly Hills mansion. But the industry needs associate executives to read stories and respond creatively, John Romano says. And who is better read than an aspiring PhD?

Romano occasionally gives a paper at a Dickens conference, usually tied to a screen theme. After trying television writing and five years' teaching at Columbia, he faced a choice between writing a new script or a second academic book. The movie - an adaptation of a Henry James novel - never got made, but Romano wrote it.

"There's a moral to the story in the sense that you can't really, in spite of appearances, make a career developing movies or projects that derive from the canon of English literature,'' he says. "For every Emma there are 400 versions of Scream 2. The industry is not about adapting classic works. But even on Scream 2 you are working on story, character, structure: a lot of things graduate students are studying in literary texts all the time.

"Can an individual graduate student say to himself, 'Well I don't need to become an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, I can always go write Spielberg's next picture'? That's not so, it's not realistic,'' he says. "The news is that there's an industry hiring and firing every day with a real need for literary sensibilities."

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