Broadway’s Best Playwrights Are Ready to Save Hollywood from Itself (Column)

This weekend’s release of “Jurassic World: Dominion” is another reminder that Hollywood is not in the business of nurturing talent so much as jamming it into preexisting machinery. The film is a failure on many levels, but it’s also a reminder that director Colin Trevorrow was a genuine Sundance breakout 10 years ago with “Safety Not Guaranteed.” He scored this franchise as a result, but it did not exactly sustain that first feature’s ingenuity.

Filmmakers are not the only ones who feel the pinch of Hollywood’s gears. With the Tony Awards on Sunday, it’s worth looking at how the film and TV industries can benefit from investing in playwrights, and avoid the pratfalls of absorbing their talent instead of giving it room to grow. The entertainment industry needs originality to survive, and the theater community has a talent pool that’s a de facto pipeline, so long as the industry puts resources behind it.

This week I finally caught up with “A Strange Loop,” the scathing and brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning play from Michael R. Jackson likely to win big at the Tonys this weekend. For the uninitiated, the 41-year-old Jackson’s passion project is a hilarious meta-musical about a 28-year-old usher for “The Lion King” who spends most of his time dreaming up a meta-musical called… “A Strange Loop.”

Based on Jackson’s own experiences, the result is a riveting, poignant plunge into his subconscious, with the protagonist haunted onstage by various personified thoughts who sing and taunt him about his neuroses. It also doubles as riotous takedown of showbiz power structures like Scott Rudin, the intellectual vacuity of Tyler Perry, and the tendency of Black art to operate in deference to the white establishment (at one point, the usher imagines a character embodying “12 Years a Slave” in tattered clothes, brandishing an Oscar).

It’s an extraordinary personal vision that received 11 Tony nominations, from Best Musical to Original Score. Jackson, now signed by WME, faces the daunting possibilities of an industry eager to provide much larger, more lucrative platforms. There’s no guarantee that he will flourish as a writer in film and TV, but he’s developing a horror script with A24 with producers Ari Aster and Jay Van Hoy and developing a new off-Broadway show.

For now, though, his main source of income outside of “A Strange Loop” is a gig in the writers’ room of Boots Riley’s upcoming Amazon series “I’m a Virgo.” There he faces the fundamental challenge of the TV landscape: For all the creative potential, only the showrunner has true power — and no final cut. Of course, Jackson isn’t necessarily risking his artistic credibility for this show in particular: Working on a Boots Riley show isn’t exactly the salt mines of “How I Met Your Mother.”

Kenneth Lonergan'Arthur Miller: Writer' film premiere, New York, USA - 12 Mar 2018

Kenneth Lonergan

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

But it does point to the delicate navigation that even the most acclaimed playwrights must undertake inside the larger Hollywood machine. The most notorious example of this struggle came to a head almost a decade ago, when Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” was released after the playwright spent five years battling with Fox Searchlight over final cut, and lost.

Lonergan picked up the pieces and eventually won an Oscar for “Manchester by the Sea,” but his filmmaking career has never been as constant or stable as his work in theater. “The way movies are made is so different from the way plays are rehearsed that in a way it wasn’t as helpful as I thought it would be,” Lonergan told IndieWire in 2000, after he made “You Can Count On Me,” his first feature. “I had to learn a tremendous amount in a very short period of time.”

In more recent years, playwrights have turned to TV gigs for steady paychecks in much the same way as first-time filmmakers. Earlier this year, Franklin Leonard’s screenwriting platform The Black List added plays to its platform and advanced $10,000 commission partnerships to several theaters across America. Writers’ rooms on shows ranging from Netflix’s “Locke & Key” to HBO’s “Perry Mason” included rising playwrights. However, unless you’re part of the insular theater community, you probably don’t know the work that scored them th e gigs.

According playwright, actor, and screenwriter Tracy Letts, shifting into TV mode isn’t the best pivot for a unique voice.

“For me, it’s often sad to see all of the former playwrights who are now television writers,” Letts told me by phone last week. “I understand why they’re doing it. You can’t make any goddamn money in the theater the way you can in film, and especially television. But I sit there and go, ‘Jesus. He was a great playwright in the making.’”

Letts was speaking a few hours before going on stage for his central role in “The Minutes.” That play, which Letts adapted from his Chicago Steppenwolf Theater production, finds the writer-actor at the center of a small-town community board meeting that goes very wrong over the course of a tight 90 minutes. The cringe-comedy deepens as it moves along, right down to memorable finale in which centuries of white colonialist rage evolves into a brutal, bloody mess. “The Minutes,” which also won the Pulitzer prior to its Broadway arrival, was nominated for Best Play this year.

Letts is one of the most revered names in the theater community. Younger audiences may know him as the dad in “Lady Bird,” but he leverages acting paychecks to fuel his stage work. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who move back and forth between the disciplines and there is something really edifying about going back into the theater,” he said. “There’s just a kind of idea here that storytelling has primacy. Ultimately, I think that plays are better than movies, and movies are better than television.”

Letts developed his own system over the course of several decades, but Jeremy O. Harris has a more recent hack. Before Jackson, the 32-year-old “Slave Play” author was the latest discovery with a bracing avant-garde work designed to challenge the Great White Way from the inside out. He’s been leveraging his early success to help more emerging playwrights follow suit.

Jeremy O. Harris poses for a portrait to promote the film "Zola" at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

Jeremy O. Harris

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

I first met Harris when he was a freelance film journalist who swung by IndieWire’s annual Sundance-condo chili parties. Last month, I saw him everywhere at Cannes, cavorting with TikTok stars and Baz Luhrmann alike, almost always adorned in a gleaming white cowboy hat and dark shades. He was in town to check out the first few episodes of Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep” adaptation for HBO, which Harris wrote with fellow playwright Will Arbery. Harris was visiting Italy during the festival and “decided that I may as well go to my first Cannes to see my name in the credits,” he said.

As “Slave Play” made waves on Broadway with its subversive look at sex therapy for interracial couples, Harris co-wrote the screenplay for Janicza Bravo’s “Zola,” and signed an overall deal with HBO. He also wrote a fake play for the third episode of HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” reboot, “The Bloody and Lamentable Tale of Aaron,” which was later commissioned as a real play by Public Theatre.

But Harris believes his biggest accomplishment to date is the way he leveraged money from HBO to support other playwrights. As part of his two-year deal, Harris secured $250,000 per year to support theater productions by his peers, including $75,000 for Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a Pulitzer finalist, and similar funds for Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s off-Broadway hit “Circle Jerk,” a zany satire of YouTube culture that went online during the pandemic and hits Broadway this month.

Harris said he wanted to see this kind of boundary-pushing work catapult more playwrights into the entertainment industry. “I’m hoping more people see that the amount of pure ingenuity that’s available to theater artists when they have such smaller budgets and fewer resources could be a boon to the film and TV industry that’s constantly weighed down by under- or overinflated budgets.” Harris said. “We need more people to think creatively about how to do those things. That’s what’s great about theater makers. They constantly think about how to use the tools at their disposals to wow people.”

At the same time, he did bemoan “the amount of playwrights who have lost countless years developing TV that’s never seen the light of day,” but added: “I think that many have been burned by theater, which is why they go to TV and film.”

Harris lived in L.A. for six years prior attending Yale to Drama School and apprenticing with veteran playwrights. “I got to witness a lot of people’s disparate careers,” he said. “I got witness a popular playwright have his moment in the sun and the way he felt devalued in the film/TV space, but I also witnessed amazing film/TV makers’ work. I hodgepodged all those things together to create a business model that makes sense to me.”

I told Harris about Letts’ frustrations with playwrights moving into TV writing gigs on projects they didn’t originate. “I can see how he might feel that way, but that’s a deeply American anxiety,” said Harris, who spends more time in London, where he’s developing two new plays. “I think America, especially the big agencies, tend to push dynamic theater voices to labor inside the fields of film and TV in a way that’s more like service work than the artistry they were doing. It’s like, ‘Take this meeting, join this room.’ That’s not how they made their plays. America is more commerce-based.”

Harris singled out another Tony nominee, British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose wry chamber piece “Hangman” is competing with Letts’ “The Minutes” for Best New Play. McDonagh’s movies, including “Seven Psychopaths” and Oscar-winner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” share the same dark wit of his theater work. (He was unavailable to comment; he’s editing his next feature, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” for Searchlight.)

“Martin’s success in film has made it that he can just decide what he wants to write and when,” Harris said. “I’m hoping that more American theater-makers — while fulfilling their dreams through service work in film and TV — might think about how they can continue to bring their voice there.” He noted recent efforts by French playwright Florian Zeller, who adapts his own plays into movies: “The Father,” which won an Oscar for Anthony Hopkins, will be followed by “The Son” later this year.

The Father

Anthony Hopkins in “The Father”

Sony Pictures Classics

Studios could codify the support system that Harris created. When they hire original voices to tweak preexisting IP, it’s not anyone’s highest and best use, including commercial behemoths in dire need of must-see content. They’re burning money on talent by rendering it anonymous. Build a fund for theater talent and suddenly you have a pipeline for original ideas.

“I think the theater/film cross-pollination is going to get really, really rich when people start investing in theater-makers,” Harris said, “not as grunts, but as full auteurs in their own medium who might be able to jump into another medium and think dynamically.”

Are you a playwright making inroads in Hollywood — or another kind of storyteller working across multiple media, trying to cobble together a business model that could use more support? Share your stories with me and they may become a part of a future column in these parts:

Browse previous columns here.

Last week’s follow-up column on the lack of infrastructure to support festival programmers yielded some compelling responses, which I’m including in part below.

One possible solution for how to bring films to festivals and audiences, and one that provides a more stable employment opportunity for programmers, would be to create one or more organizations whose mission it was to curate films that festivals can book from. Films that are “approved” by this organization could be available as a slate for festivals to program from, in competition or otherwise. This could also be a way to “resource share” programmers, especially for in-demand programmers that may only be able to program for a handful of festivals otherwise, and for small festivals to have access to professional programmers that they otherwise would not be able to afford.

— Dan Hudson, Lead Programmer, Grand Illusion Cinema

Here in India, most festivals are financed by the governments: federal or state. The politicians and bureaucrats get to hobnob with the stars. They invite a few journalists to attain and review favorably. The festivals become a junket for all. Most of the films invited are award winners from Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Locarno, and Karlovy Vary.

I just retired (or was fired) three years ago, after 12 years as an International Film Programmer at IFFI, three years at Kerala, and one year at Kolkata film Festivals. The stories were all same. The sales agents want big fees for their films and in return festival bureaucrats got a kickback. Most of these bureaucrats have no clue about the cinema, as long as the film has some award stamp on it, they are happy. If you look at this year’s guest list attending India Pavilion at Cannes, you’ll find most of them are bureaucrats.

—Jay Bajaj

There is an entire wave of filmmakers working under the radar of the Sundances, Cannes, Berlins, Locarnos, etc, that are also being swept under the crisis and might be mirroring (or be part of) the problem you are highlighting with festival programmers: They don’t pay filmmaker/rental fees.

—Jean-Jacques Martinod, filmmaker

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