A look inside Hollywood and the movies. : PREMISE PATROL : Resolving 'Cliffhanger's' Credit Hassle: Is There a Solomon in the House?

April 11, 1993|JANE GALBRAITH

We've heard of the tortuous heights to which writers will go to earn screen credits. But the attempt for credit on the upcoming movie "Cliffhanger" was, well, a real cliffhanger.

Even the Writers Guild of America had to go out on a limb to settle the dispute that involved the movie's star, Sylvester Stallone.

As reported in this space a month ago, Stallone sought to share screenwriting credit with Michael France--and has since won his bid after a routine arbitration hearing.

But the issue of where the original story idea for "Cliffhanger" came from is what pushed the guild to adopt a rarely, if ever, used screenwriting credit line: "Based upon a premise by. . . ."

In this precedent-setting case, the man with the premise is mountain-climbing expert-turned-author John Long, whose half-page movie idea formed the basis of France's script, according to a lawyer the guild retained in order to rule on the issue. (Usually, a panel of writers settles such disputes.)

The actual final credits will read: "Screenplay by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone, screen story by Michael France, based on a premise by John Long."


"The definition of when a premise becomes a concept, a concept becomes a story, a story becomes a treatment . . . which becomes a screenplay . . . the lines get very fuzzy," said a studio development executive familiar with the guild's arbitration process. "Some writers probably won't like this (based upon a premise by) wording--every writer wants to be thought of as the only person to come up with an idea--but clearly this was a weird case that had strange results," he said.

While the WGA matter is now settled--in time for the movie's release by TriStar Pictures May 28--there still is a lawsuit pending in Los Angeles Superior Court about the credits that involves Carolco Pictures and now co-screenwriter France.

Carolco claims that after it agreed to pay France a reported $500,000 for "Cliffhanger," which made headlines in the Hollywood trade papers because France was a first-time screenwriter, the company was visited by two independent producers. Carolco said the two, Gene Hines and Jim Zatalokin, provided a paper trail showing that France wasn't the original idea man after all.

Hines and Zatalokin--and subsequently Carolco--didn't dispute France's involvement in turning "Cliffhanger" into a screenplay, but they claim in the suit that he misrepresented the work as solely his.

Among other disputed claims, they said that the idea for a mountain-climbing thriller was actually Hines' and it was Hines who first hired Long, a world-famous climber and best-selling author of "How to Rock Climb," to write a movie treatment. The treatment was sent to TriStar and was read by then-story analyst France. They claim France wrote several more lengthy treatment drafts with Hines after Long left the project. France allegedly then wrote a screenplay on his own.

France was said to be unavailable to comment, pending the outcome of the case, according to his agent, Justin Dardis.

Carolco said none of the script's history was known when it paid a premium price to France for his "Cliffhanger" screenplay.

Now, Carolco seeks to recover the initial $262,000 it has already paid France, plus $750,000 in other damages in a breach of contract and fraud suit with the writer. In response, France seeks declaratory relief, saying he didn't breach his contract.

Carolco, meanwhile, has agreed to pay Hines and Zatalokin a producers' fee--reportedly $400,000--and give them co-producing credits.

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