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Plight of plot writers - Underpaid, overworked and underappreciated

A good story is the essence of good TV drama and film. But while directors and actors make money, scriptwriters toil in obscurity for scant returns and low status. Xu Wei explores the plot

Good scriptwriters are precious, often high-priced talent who turn out screenplays that can make fortunes, or lose them.

But that's outside China where domestic movie making and TV series lag behind foreign TV drama and cinema.

Chinese scriptwriters churn out vast numbers of stories, lots of them duds, for little pay and virtually no recognition.

Famed director Shang Jing, known for his comic TV sitcom "My Own Swordsman," considers the scriptwriter "the soul of a successful TV drama."

"Even in the United States where film and TV industry is mature and stable, a good and creative script plays a dominant role," Shang says.

But young people are still rushing to break into the business, though the financial crisis means some shooting and programs are canceled or postponed.

"Scriptwriting has highs and lows," says scriptwriter Zhang Ning melodramatically. "It is just like standing on the edge of the Earth. You have nothing left to rely on, but your spirits and imagination."

Zhang's scripts are less hyperbolic, mostly dealing with real-life subjects such as mid-life crises, married life, children and modern-day love affairs. They are touching.

"In addition to the talents of a director and actors, a film or TV drama's social message is of great importance," says Zhang, who's in his 50s.

Unlike scriptwriters in South Korea and the United States who usually write about one-third, leaving an open ending based on audience's feedback, Chinese scriptwriters usually create entire scripts on a tight schedule. Many must be completed - beginning to end - within months to squeeze into prime-time TV screenings.

Moreover, scriptwriters in China have far less opportunity than their foreign peers to interact with the crew, get audience feedback and develop the story. Their scripts have already been sold before the shooting starts.

That means the dialogue and plot may be radically changed by the director or even some famous actors by the time it is finally screened.

Scriptwriters have almost no recourse.

"The script plays the vital role," Zhang says, "but many Chinese film makers today concentrate too much on a star-studded cast, stunts and lavish scenes rather than a really compelling script."

Most Chinese mainland scriptwriters earn around 5-10 percent of the total budget of a TV drama series, according to Zhang. In the United States, they can earn 15-20 percent.

For a moderate-budgeted TV series, the typical payment for a famous scriptwriter is around 20,000 yuan (around US$3,000) per episode. Very few top scriptwriters can receive 80,000-100,000 yuan per episode. Famous supporting actors, however, can earn at least 50,000 yuan per episode.

Top scriptwriter Hai Yan ("Jade Goddess of Mercy" and "Never Close the Eye") says the low pay for scriptwriters is unreasonable and unfair.

"Without being compared with directors and actors, Chinese mainland scriptwriters are ranked even lower than some technicians," he said in an early interview last year.

"Our work still doesn't receive enough respect from the public," echoes aspiring scriptwriter Zhang.

"There is no specific guild to support and protect our rights," he says. "We are just individuals with no collective power. In that sense, Chinese mainland scriptwriters are a disadvantaged group faced with problems of intellectual property rights and payment default."

A strict domestic censorship system, few professional cultural investors and slight producers' demand for instant profits are other issues that make work difficult.

Just before shooting - if it is to be screened in China - a script must be reviewed and approved by the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television. Sensitive topics and plots will be censored.

Further, television viewership ratings and box-office receipts will heavily influence producers' decisions on new projects.

"If there is a popular TV drama somewhere, you can bet that there will be many imitators coming out together," says Liu Haibo, a professor in film and TV art at Shanghai University. "That will ruin the market as well as the creativity of scriptwriters."

Liu, like many young Chinese TV and film fans, is far more attracted by realistic US and South Korean drama series like "Prison Break" and "Jewel in the Palace."

"They have vivid characters, true-to-life experiences and thought-provoking insights into complicated facets of human nature," he says. "They are never divorced from real life."

Top local scriptwriter Wang Liping used to be a journalist and radio host. Ten years ago, she shot to fame with her scripts for TV family drama series, such as "Life as a Song" and "Love Is Blue." Her tales of mother's love and teens' psychological turmoil had audiences in tears.

"I definitely developed a sharper perspective through my experience as a journalist," Wang says. "A good scriptwriter needs to always be humble and sensitive to life. Before we start writing, we have to get to know all about the characters through our interviews."

As a veteran scriptwriter in her 40s, Wang's position and financial status are enviable. She can earn about 100,000 yuan per episode.

But for many anonymous young scriptwriters, earning a livelihood is far from assured. Still, many are rushing to get a writing gig.

Liu Sisi, a postgraduate in TV drama production from the Shanghai Theater Academy, says that like many of her classmates she will find a teaching or media PR job to pay the bills. Her passion, writing scripts, will be her part-time career.

"The biggest challenge for young scriptwriters is lack of experience," says Liu. "But the industry is beginning to realize the importance of a good script."

Her strategy of taking a part-time job seems a safer choice for now.

"Writing a script is a lonely and tough process," says 30-year-old freelancer Kevin Zhu, saying he's thinking about a job switch to pay the rent.

"Unlike essay writing for noted magazines, scriptwriting is more time-consuming and does not guarantee high returns. And, due to the global financial crisis, some shooting plans have been postponed or canceled."

A couple of examples have demonstrated that without a good script - even if a director and lead actors are first-rate - a film itself cannot be first-rate.

One example is John Woo's latest war epic "Red Cliff." Although it was a box-office hit due to its starry cast and Woo's fame, the film drew poor reviews from critics and audience. The shallow and illogical script was largely to blame.

Of course, everyone involved is laughing all the way to the bank.

The awkward and dry storyline failed to capture the essence and intelligence of the widely read original novel.

"It is necessary to build an effective talent mechanism for scriptwriters," concludes scriptwriter Zhang. "Big TV media is playing an increasingly important role and it should be more supportive of the scriptwriting industry."

Zhang Wei, a veteran local film and TV series producer, believes that the increasing public awareness on the importance of scriptwriting can help improve its quality.

"Only those with original ideas, superb storylines and in-depth sight will be the final winners on the screen," Zhang says.


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