James Schamus: Hollywood Focuses on Films for "20-Year-Old Chinese People"

AP Photo/David Azia

In London, he also talks about embracing TV, philosophy, 'Showgirls' and working on Ang Lee's unloved 'Hulk'

In a lively hour-long talk late Thursday, James Schamus opened the BAFTA and BFI 2014 Screenwriters’ Lecture Series at the BFI Southbank in London.

The screenwriter, producer and former Focus Features CEO took aim at changes in Hollywood and discussed the concept of art.

The longtime Ang Lee collaborator pointed out such Hollywood trends as the increasing reliance on foreign growth markets. "Hollywood is not American," Schamus said. "Its revenues are only 30 to 40 percent American. Its primary purpose right now is to make movies that 20-year-old Chinese people want to see. That’s really the future."

But while he suggested that writers were low down the pecking order in moviemaking, he said TV was where they had the real control. "The writers hire the directors," he said. "How do they do it? I have no idea." But he added he was keen to get involved with TV. "I’d be happy to embrace TV," Schamus said. "I love TV, and maybe at some point I will."

Answering a question from the audience, Schamus spoke jovially about perhaps his least well-received work, 2003’s Hulk.

"I kind of love that the Hulk is the bad object in Ang Lee’s career," he said, laughing. "But the bizarre thing about Hulk is that if you go onto Rotten Tomatoes, it’s actually fresh. It’s not hugely fresh, it’s like 64 percent. But it was apparently so bad that they had to make The Incredible Hulk, which actually made less money."

Schamus even confirmed that he had started work on Hulk 2.

"I had a really cool idea set on a Native American reservation, and it was going to involve radioactivity and be really political. It would have been awesome," he said, but added that he had pulled the plug following the scathing response to the first film: "I quickly decided before anyone made the phone call that I’d make the phone call."

Schamus also used his time onstage in London to criticize the concept of screenwriting as an art form, arguing that someone who had written a screenplay had in reality "created 124 pages of begging for money and attention." He asked: "How does that get you into the art category?"

In a series of well-received comments — even once using a whiteboard — Schamus drew on the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant, John Locke and Theodor Adorno to discuss "art" and its creation, wondering why we consider some films art but not others.

"Showgirls, for example, wasn’t not art, it’s just bad," he said. "Must art be good? No, most sucks, but it’s still art."

The BAFTA Screenwriter’s series continues Saturday with Emma Thompson and Steven Knight on Sept. 29.