The Life and Death of Hollywood

Film and television writers face an existential threat

Daniel Bessner at Harper’s Magazine: In 2012, at the age of thirty-two, the writer Alena Smith went West to Hollywood, like many before her. She arrived to a small apartment in Silver Lake, one block from the Vista Theatre—a single-screen Spanish Colonial Revival building that had opened in 1923, four years before the advent of sound in film.

Smith was looking for a job in television. She had an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and had lived and worked as a playwright in New York City for years—two of her productions garnered positive reviews in the Times. But playwriting had begun to feel like a vanity project: to pay rent, she’d worked as a nanny, a transcriptionist, an administrative assistant, and more. There seemed to be no viable financial future in theater, nor in academia, the other world where she supposed she could make inroads.

For several years, her friends and colleagues had been absconding for Los Angeles, and were finding success. This was the second decade of prestige television: the era of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Girls. TV had become a place for sharp wit, singular voices, people with vision—and they were getting paid. It took a year and a half, but Smith eventually landed a spot as a staff writer on HBO’s The Newsroom, and then as a story editor on Showtime’s The Affair in 2015.

I first spoke with Smith in August of last year, four months into the strike called by the Writers Guild of America against the members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the biggest Hollywood studios. In 2013, she’d begun to develop the idea for what would become Dickinson, a gothic, at times surreal comedy based on the life of the poet, Emily. “I realized you could do one of those visceral, sexy, dangerous half hours but make it a period piece,” she said. “I was never trying to write some middle-of-the-road thing.” She sold the pilot and a plan for at least three seasons to Apple in 2017; she would be the showrunner, and the series had the potential to become one of the flagship offerings of the company’s streaming service, which had not yet launched.

Looking back, Smith sometimes marvels that Dickinson was made at all. “It centers an unapologetic, queer female lead,” she said. “It’s about a poet and features her poetry in every episode—hard-to-understand poetry. It has a high barrier of entry.” But that was the time. Apple, like other streamers, was looking to make a splash. “I mean, they made a show out of I Love Dick,” Smith said, referring to the small-press cult classic by Chris Kraus, adapted into a 2016 series for Amazon Prime Video…

More here.