LOS ANGELES -- Time was, Hollywood regularly followed and bid for the work of such playwrights as Robert Sherwood, Moss Hart, Garson Kanin, George S. Kaufman, Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams. Dramas, comedies and musicals were the fuel powering the movie machine, right up into the late 70's when such high-tech, spectacle films as "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" became gigantic box office hits and provided the main impetus for the market. With their tight-knit stories, literate dialogue and limited settings, plays were deemed old fashioned and non-commercial. In recent years, though, plays have been making something of a comeback. Six Degrees of Separation, The Crucible, A Few Good Men, Dancing at Lughnasa, Little Voice and Hurlyburly are just a few of the works which have made the transition from stage to celluloid. Does that signify a trend or is it simply a temporary blip on Hollywood's radar screen?
After interviewing playwrights, movie and theatre producers, agents and development people, the consensus seems to be that in Hollywood's estimation, theatre is alive but not so well. While Six Degrees and A Few Good Men did well at the box office, the other films named above flopped, and rather badly.
Does that mean that we won't be seeing any of our favorite plays on the big screen in the near future? Dick Dotterer and Dan Luria don't think so. Luria is an actor (ABC's "The Wonder Years") and the artistic director of PKE (Pacific Kitchen Ensemble) Theatre. Dotterer is co-chairman of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, a support system/networking organization for the area's many stage scribes; he points to Hollywood's indifference where the theatre is concerned. "In the past, Hollywood drew its personnel from the theatre or literature," he said. "Today they come to the industry from film schools. It's a generation only interested in television and movies, and that goes for the writers as well. Playwrights are a dying breed."
Luria backs Dotterer up. "For ten years now, PKE has been running a Monday night new- play reading series. We get backing from Patchett Kaufman Entertainment and Showtime. We send Showtime the plays we think really work and even offer to bring the actors to their office and put on a private reading, but never once have we got back an expression of interest," he said. "In my opinion, the only way a play in this town will attract Hollywood's attention is if the reviewer says something like 'this will make a helluva movie.'"
Longtime L.A. producer and theatre owner Jeff Murray concurs. "Of all the plays I've been involved in, only half a dozen have been optioned for films," he said, "and of those only three got made. The big interest is mainly in plays headed for Broadway with potential stars attached. When you come to think of it, most Hollywood people are more interested in the actors than the plays. They are always looking for the next screen star. It's only in New York that a new play will be vetted by agencies like William Morris and CAA. Here when an agent shows up, chances are he's only there to check out the ingenue." Shem Bitterman, however, believes otherwise, if only because he is one of the few local playwrights whose work regularly draws Hollywood's interest. In the past ten years three of his plays have been turned into films. The latest one was Self Storage, which was produced at the 99-seat Odyssey Theatre. Samuel Goldwyn Films bought the property and turned it into the feature "Tinseltown."
Bitterman, who won a 1998 Best Play award from the L.A. Critics Circle for The Job, suggests Hollywood will come calling, but only if a play enjoys a long run. "This gives you the time to work at inviting guests," he said. "Good reviews help, of course, but more important is the effort you put into cajoling producers and development people into seeing your play. Even if they don't buy it, they might hire you to do a screenplay. That's how I got to script 'Halloween IV & V.'" A heavy compromise? Maybe, but immigrant playwrights and directors of the 1930s and 40s were faced with the same obstacles, and it's hard to knock the comforts of a fat paycheck, especially when you still get to be a writer. That, one supposed, is showbiz.
-- By Willard Manus
Southern California Correspondent