Who invented the screenplay?

James Schamus, in his BAFTA lecture last September, explains who invented the screenplay as we know it, and why. You can read the full transcript here or listen to the podcast lecture here.

Thomas Ince, I don’t know if anyone remembers him now, was one of the most important people in the history of cinema. He ran one of the biggest studios in the history of cinema, Inceville, and then he ended up forming a company with a lot of major players including DW Griffith. Any of you who have visited the Sony lot, it’s called the Sony lot now, it used to be the MGM lot, in Culver City in California, you’ll still see the colonnades at the gates on I think it’s the northside of that campus, that’s the only remnant left of Ince’s empire.

Thomas Ince was a really amazing guy and one of the things he did in the very early era of cinema in the teens, when you were moving from one reelers to two to three to longer form, when time was starting to morph the screenplay and the film into something larger that now looks and feels like narrative film, he was there at the creation of that, at the multi-reel film with Griffith. And back in the old days they used to have production units that included a core of actors and they would just go out for a day and say, you know what, they would say to Tom: ‘We’re gonna make a movie. A gypsy family with the circus is going to take a baby, a white baby,and then there will be a chase, and then they’ll get the white baby back.’

It’s like, ‘That’s a great idea, go for it.’ And then they’d come back and they’d run the rushes and he’d say, ‘What are these elephants? How much did this cost? What’s the budget?’ It was all kind of amorphous. And what he said is,

Look, I’ve come up with a great idea. It’s called a screenplay. And I’m not going to approve any movies going out until I see the screenplay and I give it to a guy – who we now call the assistant director – who’s going to break it down, and then I’m going to send it to my accountants and they’re going to budget it, and then I’m going to give you this amount of money to do it. And so if you want elephants, you’ve got to put it in the script, and maybe even in capitals so that they’ll pay attention, and then I’ll provide you a budget, and don’t go over budget because that’s coming out of your salary.

And he really rationalised what was essentially a chaotic serial production approach to filmmaking, and he did it through the medium, guess what, of the screenplay. The screenplay was really the control function for the way in which time and money were organised in these production units. And to this day we’ve adapted pretty much whole what Thomas Ince created as the ability for the money, the capital, to really organise and yay or nay, because they had a piece of paper rather than a bunch of people standing on a set waiting for them.”

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