Roundtable: Humanitas winners

Some of the biggest writers in the business discuss their Humanitas Prizes and the state of storytelling

If you somehow are able to convince a group of award-winning screenwriters to gather in the same room and talk about their craft, it's safe to predict that a love fest is unlikely to ensue. So the conversation went when eight distinguished scribes came together in May for a roundtable chat pegged to tomorrow's 33rd Annual Humanitas Prize luncheon at the Hilton Universal Hotel. Each has won at least one Humanitas, an honor created in 1974 to honor excellence in film and television writing through "stories that affirm the human person, probe the meaning of life and enlighten the use of human freedom."

Designed to probe the state of Literary Hollywood, the session included (pictured from left):  Humanitas board president Frank Desiderio; Anna Sandor, who won Humanitas awards in 1993 and 2002 and is a children's live-action category finalist this year for her teleplay, "Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front"; Robert Eisele, who earned his Humanitas Prize in 1986 for a segment of "Cagney & Lacey"; Jennifer Crittenden, a 2001 Humanitas winner for an "Everybody Loves Raymond" script and a Humanitas finalist this year for CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine"; Marshall Herskovitz, the "thirtysomething" co-creator/exec producer and a winner of three Humanitas honors;  John Sacret Young, whose Humanitas trophies came in 1978 for the 90-minute TV project "Special Olympics" and in 1999 for the telefilm "Thanks of a Grateful Nation"; Edward Zwick, a 1999 Oscar winner as a producer on "Shakespeare in Love," a two-time Humanitas recipient -- and Herskovitz's longtime writing and producing collaborator; three-time Oscar nominee Frank Darabont, who took home a Humanitas in 1995 for "The Shawshank Redemption"; Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose screenplay for the indie feature "Love & Basketball" earned her a 2000 Humanitas;  Humanitas executive director Cathleen Young. (Not pictured, Frank Darabont, three-time Oscar nominee who took home a Humanitas in 1995 for "The Shawshank Redemption."

The assembled writers talked shop with The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond in a discussion moderated at THR's offices.

Watch video highlights of this roundtable

The Hollywood Reporter: Let's start off talking about your each having won the Humanitas, which is, after all, why you're here. It has to make you feel pretty good to be given an award for creating something that celebrates and elevates the human condition.
Marshall Herskovitz: It feels particularly special because you're at this luncheon attended by people of real substance who care about something.
Anna Sandor: The beautiful thing is that it's a writers award that honors women on an equal level with men. Usually, as women, we're low on the writing totem pole. But at the same time I thought, Isn't it a shame that there has to be an award for writing that explores the human condition. I mean, isn't that what all writing should be?

THR: How did it feel to see Christopher Moltisanti smack Tim Daly's writer character in the head with a Humanitas trophy on an episode of HBO's "The Sopranos" last season?
Edward Zwick: You know, the word "earnest" tends to be a death knell to a writer's career. If you write about social realism or politics or anything of the substantive it's not always considered the hippest thing on earth to be doing, and I think the Humanitas shines a certain light on that kind of work and validates it in a way that makes people want to smack people in the head with the trophy. The kind of idealism it honors can be annoying to some people, but it certainly has value to celebrate excellence in pursuing issues of humanity as opposed to, you know, just trying to make people cry or something.
Jennifer Crittenden: I didn't know what it was when I won it, and I didn't know how I won it or why I won it.

THR: So you're saying it was pretty special?
Crittenden: Oh, yeah. I honestly had never heard of the Humanitas Prize. My episode had been submitted by a producer, and I knew I had to give the money (that accompanies the award) away if I won. But ever since I won it, I've tried to ignore it because I'm afraid -- as Ed alluded to -- that it'll make me too earnest. If you try to target that, it doesn't make for good writing.
Sandor: When I won the first time, my cousin was visiting from Hungary, and it was her first time in the West. She attended the luncheon with me in this gorgeous ballroom where they handed me a trophy and a check for $25,000, and all of these people were applauding. She thought, Well, I guess this is America.

THR: Many of you joke about the dangers of appearing overly earnest in your prose, and yet at the same time it's clear you're a rare commodity -- not because writers don't aspire to quality but because the business itself is far less interested in art than in making a buck. True?
Zwick: Oh, absolutely. As multinational corporations have taken over these broadcasters and studios, the need to grow profits 15% a year has created the need for something that is entirely hit-based. I think the idea of a movie opening on 4,000 screens obliges the content to become homogenized. That a television show needs to reach X-number of people limits content and execution to something more generalized.
John Sacret Young: Maybe 15 years ago, they had a definition at NBC that there were two kinds of writers: fast and good. A few years later, they put up a second model: fast and faster. Now, I think the model would be, "We don't care about the script -- it's all about whether it's going to do well immediately."
Crittenden: A TV show has to reach a lot of people within two weeks or else it's moved off the schedule or canceled. It's hard to connect that quickly in comedy.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It's definitely harder now to sell a feature that tries to say something. I think "Love & Basketball" would never get made today. On the surface, it's about a black woman who wants to be the first girl in the NBA. I mean, who would buy that now? The fact that I got rewarded for taking the risk of writing it has helped keep me on the path of telling smaller, more personal stories, but it's a difficult road to travel.

THR: When you're staring at a blank computer screen, do you find yourself having to make an active decision about whether to develop something that will more easily sell versus a project of substance with maybe less commercial potential?
Robert Eisele: What I think is interesting is, sometimes the stuff you write that you think is noncommercial becomes the most commercial thing and a script that advances your career. It's much harder to try to be commercial. I just wrote a feature I'm really proud of, but it would have been tough to get it made had Denzel Washington not agreed to direct and star in it. There are a lot of Oscar nominees and Emmy and WGA winners with wonderful scripts sitting in drawers and drawing no interest because they won't open really well on 4,000 screens.

THR: Yet there remains a certain faith that the cream will naturally rise to the top, that the audience will find and embrace quality through the mundane clutter. But that theory falls down when one recalls how a great film like "The Shawshank Redemption" flopped at the boxoffice.
Frank Darabont: That raises the other question: Is the audience willing to embrace something that isn't, you know, (Sony's) "Spider-Man 3," that isn't the thing they're conditioned to go see in a robotic, sheep-like sort of fashion. I've heard people say, "I've heard it sucks, but I'm going to go see it anyway because apparently I have to," as if there's some sort of "Manchurian Candidate"-like brainwashing going on. This is why those in the executive offices will continue to be controlled by what the marketing department thinks they can sell versus, "Wow, here's a really good story, let's make this."

THR: But every year it seems like at least a few great scripts manage to slip through and get made, no?
Darabont: That's generally true. Like last year, "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Children of Men" were amazing, blazing, original works of art, and I'm stunned that they got onscreen.
Zwick: The news is consistently better in television in terms of fostering creativity. If you think about cable there is, in fact, extraordinary writing being done right now. Those voices are quite singular and distinctive.
Darabont: It's true. There's some great writing on (FX's) "The Shield," "The Sopranos," even a light souffle like (HBO's) "Entourage" is getting smarter and darker and has more teeth every episode. Some of this stuff is actually humbling.

THR: What's different about the movie business that the top-drawer writing is seemingly so much less prevalent than it is in TV?
Eisele: I think partly it's because the decision-makers have a way of nullifying successes that are small and unique. I remember going into a meeting not long after (1989's) "Driving Miss Daisy" had done well at the boxoffice, and it was singled out as an anomaly. They won't consider that model as a viable one for making money.
Herskovitz: What constrains the film industry is the new model it subscribes to wherein it's not enough to make some midlevel movies that make some money. It's the difference between having the corner drugstore that supports the family and being CVS and opening new stores every month.
Prince-Bythewood: What's most disturbing to me is that the model is starting to filter down from the big studios to the independents, the ones that are supposed to foster the fresh new ideas but are now so cast-based that it's really hard for the small films even to get made.
Darabont: I had the head of one studio read my script for (a remake of) "Fahrenheit 451" and tell me it was the best thing he'd read since he starting running the place, how it was like I was channeling Paddy Chayefsky. But he said he couldn't possibly make it because he couldn't get 13-year-olds through the door. That's what we're up against.

THR: And so it requires an act of courage to make a film that you know going in is unlikely to have a big opening weekend?
Young: I would say yes. Making some money is not making enough money.
Eisele: At the same time, it's important not to confuse studio agenda with the sophistication of the audience. Those of us who have young adult children can attest to the fact they have taste and they love art and they like good storytelling and they aren't all driven by the short-attention-span, give-it-to-me-in-five-seconds-or-I-can't-watch-it dynamic. I think the majority of people who go to movies have very strong bullshit radar. What's really telling is to watch people watch trailers at the theater. Especially with trailers for dramatic films, people will notice something that doesn't ring true, they'll hiss it off the screen, and those films invariably don't make money. The public truth indicator is remarkably accurate.

THR: So the message is that if studios would only make better and deeper movies, they could become mainstream hits and make plenty of money, too? Is that even a realistic possibility?
Darabont: We have to believe that, because we in this room have written things we're passionate about and have found some measure of success doing it.
Zwick: It's also important to add that when you get a group of writers together, the degree of despair and depressive behavior is amplified each by the other. So I think we've reached some critical mass here. Were you to sit down and convene the same kind of a table in 1967 or '68 or at different times over the past 40 years, you would hear a similar set of complaints. I hope that doesn't make me sound too earnest.

Human league: Rewarding writers for stories that enlighten, inspire
Roundtable: Humanitas winners
Roundtable video highlights
Dialogue: Humanitas program