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script doctorscript doctor   

Definition: Someone hired to revise a script by those with creative control over its filming usually to ensure the film’s commercial success.

History: The term was coined in the 1930s when filmmaking transitioned from silent movies to those with sound. As the term talkies indicates, the transition emphasized the content, filming and delivery of dialogue. To wit:

  • Film actors drawn mainly from Vaudeville and skilled at exaggerated facial and physical expression were replaced by actors from legitimate theater skilled at delivering dialogue.

  • Camera shots other than from the other side of the fourth wall, e.g., the over-the-shoulder shot, were introduced to complement dialogue.

  • Action scenarios with periodic lines to be printed on screen became scripts complete with scenarios and dialogue, the latter written by professional writers labeled script doctors..
  • Eventually the original role of script doctor evolved into screenwriter and attracted literary talents such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellmanand and Raymond Chandler. All collaborated with studio screenwriters as the responsibility of the screenwriter included directions for camera placement and other visual aspects. The job prepared several screenwriters to become directors, such as John Huston, Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.    

    The need for script doctors would resurge with the demise of the Studio System that shifted considerable creative control from the studios to directors and stars. Indeed, many modern directors author or coauthor their own screenplays, such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, John Woo and Sofia Coppola. And many actors have transitioned to director, such as Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Jodie Foster, Jon Favreau and Ben Affleck. Directors generally came to exercise creative control over visual content. This change led to the advent of the master scene script, a format that enables modern screenwriters to focus on plot and dialogue.

    For the studios, this new era has entailed far more risk. First, the studios of Classic Hollywood could control production costs, which meant they could produce more films and suffer proportionately less when films flopped. More important, the major studios owned theater chains nationwide until they were forced to divest ownership by a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court antitrust decision. In small town markets, which comprised most of America before divestiture, this meant moviegoers could either watch films that one or two studios in town presented or stay home.

    Since divestiture, studio releases have needed to please the public or lose screens. Moreover, given the escalating costs of producing films, studios have little financial wiggle room to absorb flops. Accordingly, today's script doctors are screenwriters who have track records of success.

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