A Student of History

October 24, 2006

Hollywood Historians

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Maass @ 9:12 pm

Could you be a Hollywood historian?  There’s an interesting career piece at the Chronicle’s website, with a brief bit of it below.

Showing up on the big screen at your local multiplex isn’t something most scholars would consider career-enhancing. But what about having an Oscar-winning director ask your views or guiding movie stars through the thickets of historical accuracy? What professor’s heart wouldn’t beat a little faster at that?

As someone who has worked as a producer for years and written about the intersection between Hollywood and academe, I would like to offer some advice to professors interested in working on television series or feature films.

The academic’s most obvious path to Hollywood — writing the big, definitive book on a historical subject — is the most time-consuming. Robin Lane Fox’s first book on Alexander the Great was published in 1974 and optioned several times before Oliver Stone finally got the epic on film in 2004. Here’s the first lesson: Having your book optioned is no guarantee that a film will ever be made, nor that your views will be reflected in the script. As far as producers are concerned, an option is basically protection against similar films being made or lawsuits being filed.

Sometimes even unpublished work creates a buzz. In 2000, Tyler Anbinder, an associate professor of history at George Washington University, got a phone call from representatives of Martin Scorsese, who had heard of Five Points, Anbinder’s 2001 book on a slum neighborhood in pre-Civil-War New York.

Anbinder agreed to read the screenplay for Gangs of New York and give his reactions, and a few months later, found himself face to face with Scorsese for a Q&A — one at which Anbinder learned something about how films are made. He asked Scorsese why a certain scene was being set up the way it was, and the director told him about his vision of the shot. A historian’s quibbles were not about to change the scene at that point — after all, Scorsese been laboring for more than 20 years to get the film made.

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