Christopher McKittrick

The Academy: Shining a “Spotlight on Screenwriting” in New York City

The Academy: Shining a “Spotlight on Screenwriting” in New York City
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By Christopher McKittrick.

Academy logoFrom May through July in New York City, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present “Spotlight on Screenwriting,” a screening and discussion series devoted to screenwriting.

The series will highlight the importance of screenwriting to the creation of film and will include screenings of Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated films, a special screening of the upcoming summer comedy Ghostbusters, and discussions with film historians and screenwriters about the essential role that screenwriting plays in the creation of films.

Patrick Harrison, the Director of New York Programs and Membership for the Academy, revealed to Creative Screenwriting that the idea behind the screenwriting series grew out of the opportunity to educate moviegoers on the craft of screenwriting.

“We started the ‘Spotlight on Craft’ series with the thought that every year we would look at a different craft branch of the Academy and do programming around it to educate the public on how films are made, the creative process, and present an opportunity for filmmakers to learn from their colleagues,” Harrison said. “We started the series last year with animation, and it was so successful that we thought about what we were going to feature this year. We thought, ‘Why don’t we start from the beginning?’ Every film starts with an idea, and then characters and story need to be developed.”

Beginning May 15, the first programming within the series is “Hollywood’s Happiest Couple: Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett,” a trio of screenings devoted to the thirteen-film collaboration between screenwriter/director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett.

The three films – 1939’s Ninotchka, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, 1945’s The Lost Weekend, which won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay – will screen from 35mm prints at the Film Forum with introductions by Jim Moore, the biographer and grandson of Brackett.

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.

Harrison points out that because screenwriting is a highly collaborative craft during both the writing and production processes, it was important to highlight a creative screenwriting and directing partnership that yielded extraordinary results. “We wanted part of the series to highlight collaboration, to see what relationships directors and writers have in producing their films.

When you look at Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s history, their story as collaborators is quite interesting,” he said. “We wanted to take a look at what those two creative minds were thinking about in bringing these three stories to the big screen.”

On June 7, the series continues at the SVA Theater with Hollywood’s Darkest Moment: “The Front” Screening and Q&A. 1976’s The Front, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Woody Allen, tells the story of a man who serves as a “front” for blacklisted television writers during the McCarthy era in Hollywood. In a case of art imitating life, the film was written by Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted during the era and used a front in order to keep his career alive when nobody would hire him.

Bernstein received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for The Front. The Brooklyn-born Bernstein will appear in person at the screening for a Q&A session after the film, which will be presented in a new 4K DCP restoration by Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Though recent films like Trumbo and Hail, Caesar! have addressed the Hollywood Blacklist, Harrison points out that in some cases when people hear about the “Hollywood Blacklist” when it relates to screenwriting, they erroneously think of The Black List, the annual survey of best unproduced screenplays. Because of that, Harrison noted the importance of featuring an event on the historical Blacklist.

He explains, “Walter Bernstein is going to talk about what his experiences were like as a creative person not being able to present himself as the creative engine behind his work and needing a ‘front’ to be the public face for him. What was it like for him trying to make a living?

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo

He had friends one day who wanted to have lunch and the next day they would cross the street and not want to be associated with him. The writers had fronts who could step in for them. It was a double-edged sword – someone else is there taking credit for your work – but I think it’s very important for this generation in particular to understand what the blacklist was and what it did to creative freedom. What is the legacy of that period on Hollywood and the creative community today?”

Though the Academy is in the process of finalizing additional programming for the series, as of now the series will conclude in July on a date to be announced with a sneak preview screening of Ghostbusters courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which will be followed with a discussion with co-writer Katie Dippold.

Ghostbusters film poster. Image courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Ghostbusters film poster. Image courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Harrison indicates that a reboot of a thirty-year-old blockbuster featuring a main cast made up of women and a female screenwriter serves as a perfect bridge of the Academy’s mission for the series. He says, “The Academy wants to preserve the past as well as shape the future.

Ghostbusters was a huge hit back in the 1980s, so we are extremely interested in asking Katie about what was her process in adapting this highly successful summer blockbuster-type film for a female cast, including what were some of the challenges.

I just think it’s very interesting that this film is going to be told from a woman’s perspective. It was very important for us to have that kind of balance in the programming. This film is coming around at the perfect time, and I think that’s very important for the Academy as well for diversity and inclusion.”

In addition to the entertainment value of the films presented, Harrison hopes that audiences will have a greater understanding of the importance of screenwriting. He says, “What I’m hoping that these conversations following the screenings show screenwriters, aspiring screenwriters, students of film, and even the general public is that his is a collaborative process, a creative process, and a lot goes into developing stories and interesting entertainment for people. We want the takeaway to be a deeper appreciation of the screenwriting craft.”


Featured image courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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2 Responses to The Academy: Shining a “Spotlight on Screenwriting” in New York City

  1. Louis Phillips May 22, 2016 at 5:05 am

    I’ve watched a lot of films, the good ones all have an ”essence” that begins with the writing…

    ’’Destry Rides Again’’ does that, the peremptory nature of Dunlevy’s villain resonates, [he is simply and realistically fixed on being a villain the thought of being anything else has never crossed his mind.] The protagonistic ness of Stewart is the same, [understanding of the reality and diversity in people.] His unconcerned nature is changed as required by the reality of his job, the face losing all affability in a quick second, responding to the need for action, nailing his place the truth of the story.

    Four screen writers wrote this, I haven’t worked out yet where the initial spark came from, [i haven’t spent the needed time,] but i will, if you claim to be able to write, you need to do that.The surety of the characters is what makes the perception of a story, and create the indelible impression of a film. All of the smaller parts in this film provide the actors with something important to do, I particularly like Merkel’s wife character she would enjoyed playing that part.

  2. Louis Phillips May 22, 2016 at 5:29 am

    It may have been a surprise to read that Billy Wilder was of Austrian Jewish origin, but i think not. The patois of life is learned by living.
    The need to be wary is required, in expressing ones own understanding of truth.
    Sometimes the forbearance required for truth doesn’t occur in America. [This is purely an entirely incidental fact.]
    Dalton Trumbo found this out. Despite being born under the same shared American sky in the land of the free, he chose to risk it all for his own personal share of the truth.
    The lesson is there for all to see.

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