Why We Write

January 9, 2008

Why We Write – Number 13: James Duff

Number 13

Today’s piece is written by James Duff, Creator and Executive Producer of “The Closer.”


When is it no longer possible to forgive?  How do we balance the constant tension between idealism and pragmatism?  And, most importantly, what does it mean to be human?  Happily, it is not my responsibility to answer these questions, but merely frame them within a dramatic structure where they might be entertainingly examined.  And there’s no subject, theme or plot about which I cannot mount a rigorous, fictional inquiry.

For example, let’s say I propose a story about a guild of screenwriters struggling to maintain their rights and royalties against several multi-national conglomerates.  This original idea came to me – entirely out of the blue – while I was picketing Raleigh Studios in Hollywood.  My make-believe Guild of Writers would be a difficult organization to keep united: its members, valued for their ability to articulate individual points of view, would probably be competitive and insular; getting them to act in concert would be more complicated than assimilating every solo vocalist around the world into one happy choir (imagine a Jewish-Islamic glee club practicing “Away in a Manger”).  In order to create an event that could believably draw so many diverse artists together, I must introduce a galvanizing threat transcending their individual interests.  Perhaps a New Media Platform, a sort of sci-fi distribution system that would eventually gain prevalence over television networks and (maybe even) movie theatres, entirely dispensing with format and schedules, might do the trick.  The Guild would apprehend this New Media Platform with curiosity and wonder.

For story purposes, I will array against my heroic Guild several corporate CEOs who control the old means of media distribution; the enormous profitability of their entertainment divisions will depend on a combination of rapidly decaying business models and secretive (legally dubious) accounting.  The quick establishment of this sci-fi New Media Platform will alarm the conglomerates and the moguls who lead them; it will threaten their monopoly on the distribution of filmed entertainment.

I shall make sure that several of the multi-national corporations are led by CEOs who understand that the Internet – whoops, I mean the New Media Platform – does not bode well for the future valuation of their entertainment divisions; they will be desperate to protect and expand their libraries before they begin competing with…well, everyone.  I will pit these dark visionaries not only against the writers, but also against many of their fellow CEOS, some of whom, in an attempt to justify their greed, have developed the bizarre principle that writers deserve no royalties or residuals for reuse of their work, or any underlying rights to their own material.  Maybe there will be only one or two moguls who actually subscribe to this completely fatuous idea, but we shall impose on the conglomerates the Rule of Unanimity, which requires all media companies – good, bad and morally indifferent – to agree on every single point of every contested issue before a settlement can be reached.  This nefarious concept – the Rule of Unanimity (doesn’t it sound totally sci-fi?) – will mean that only one person, all on their lonesome, can derail an entire industry.  I shall also have the media moguls offer the writers “A New Economic Partnership.”  Announced with the artless gravity of museum guides, this so-called proposal shall resemble less a business plan than the prenuptial agreement from Elizabeth Taylor’s last marriage, revealing exactly what the bloated CEOs would like to do to the scribes (having successfully done it to writers for generations) while unconsciously signaling how these entitled executives evaluate their own diminishing allure.

Will The Guild accede to these unreasonable demands?  And surrender all participation in the future success of their work?  And proceed to the New Media Platform without recognition of their rights, royalties or basic minimum contracts?  Never!  Its members will stop writing; they will be unified in their overall goal, which will be jurisdiction over, and revenues from, this revolutionary distribution system.  But The Guild will be alone.  Other unions will either be unable to come to their aid, take positions that are outright against them or have paid a great deal of money to reassure themselves that the sci-fi distribution system is too far in the future to matter much.  

How will the story end?  That’s another great thing about being a writer.  As long as the conclusion remains consistent with the characters and the underlying theme, I can resolve the plot any way I like.  For example, maybe the CEOs will negotiate a new template with directors instead of writers.  Maybe the entertainment divisions of these giant conglomerates will collapse beneath the weight of their own unnecessary infrastructure.  Maybe the Guild will splinter and dissolve, ending unions in the studio workplace.  Or, in an unexpected twist, the sci-fi Media Platform will develop much faster than anticipated leaving writers and executives alike stranded in a Brave New Entertainment World, although (if you don’t count what film did to theatre, and what radio did to live music, and what television did to radio, and what iTunes and Napster did to the recording industry) this sort of thing has never happened before. 

However I finish off the narrative, I must seriously consider what my chief collaborators – the actors – are willing to play.  If I fail to interest “the players”, they will pass on my story in the not unnatural hope that better parts will come along.  And I’ll have to start all over again sometime in the distant future.  Like June.

But whether I find an audience, or my completely original story ever gets produced, I have still applied myself to an inquiry that deeply engages me.  With any luck, I will find an audience willing to entertain the same question, and join me on my journey of discovery.  And (in addition to the money and the lack of any other marketable skill this side of a bar) that’s why I write!


WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

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