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A Devil of a Time for 'Angels' ' Scribes

October 31, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

I'm probably going to lose a little money on "Charlie's Angels." But that's OK--the movie's been a bonanza for nearly every other writer in town.

Sony Pictures, desperate for a hit, managed to spend $6 million on the script for the $92-million action comedy that opens Friday. The studio didn't give all the loot to just one lucky stiff; it spread the wealth. Although only three writers have script credit, 17 writers ended up working on the movie, including six "Seinfeld" and "Larry Sanders Show" vets who did a round-table joke writing session just before it went into production.

Never has so much top-flight talent been put to work on such a trifle--it's like asking Bono and Beck to write songs for the Backstreet Boys. The Six Million Dollar Screen Team includes such A-list screenwriters as Ed Solomon ("Men in Black"), Robert Harling ("First Wives Club"), Akiva Goldsman ("Batman Forever"), Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"), Zak Penn ("Antz") and Mitch Glazer ("Great Expectations").

The tag-team approach to making the movie wasn't limited to just writers; the film also had three sets of producers, including original "Charlie's Angels" TV producer Leonard Goldberg, co-star Drew Barrymore and "28 Days" producer Jenno Topping.

"It was a hellish experience," says one of the screenwriters. "There was a lot of grasping at straws, which is why so many writers came and went. It was a mess from start to finish--if Jenno hadn't come in, we'd probably still be shooting the movie."

No one's saying the film won't open big. It's playing well with teen moviegoers in previews. That's where I'm in the hole. I have an over-under opening weekend bet with a Sony executive (I'm taking under $29 million) that I suspect I'll lose, since the current tracking numbers--pre-release marketing surveys of moviegoers--have the movie opening at $33 million. But I'm still betting that the road to riches will be rough; bad reviews and the technobabble action scenes may keep the movie from crossing over to the adult audience it will need to make a sizable profit.

Why did a movie like "Charlie's Angels" end up with enough screenwriters to screw in all the lightbulbs at the El Capitan Theater? Let's go back to the beginning.


The idea for reviving the late '70s TV show about three crime-fighting babes came in the mid-'90s from Goldberg. After seeing how well movie versions of TV shows like "The Fugitive" did at the box office, he went to Sony, then run by Mark Canton, and proposed doing a film version of the show (which Sony owned through its acquisition of Goldberg and Aaron Spelling's TV company).

Sony hired Carol Wolper to write the first script, largely because she'd just done a well-received rewrite on the 1995 hit, "Bad Boys."

"I said, 'If you want some cute James Bond-type genre spoof, you've come to the wrong person,' " Wolper recalls. "I'm going to write a movie where they aren't going to just wave a gun and say, 'Freeze!' They're really going to shoot it."

By the time she turned in her script, Canton was gone and Amy Pascal was in. The new studio chief wanted more of a tongue-in-cheek film and turned to Ryan Rowe and Solomon, old college friends from UCLA. Solomon was especially valued for having written "Men in Black," a blockbuster whose cheeky tone the studio was supposedly looking for.

The writers delivered a finished script in July 1998. It featured a brainy trio of Angels who could lip-read any language, outfight any guy and traversed the globe in their quest to rescue a flock of kidnapped supermodels--a Bond-style action thriller, played for laughs.

The script got Barrymore attached to the movie. But Sony couldn't get A-list directors interested. "It was a no-win situation," explains Goldberg. "It certainly wasn't an Oscar movie, yet everyone already had such commercial expectations for the picture that if you didn't deliver a hit, you'd look like a failure."

Barrymore and her producing partner, Nancy Juvonen, brought on John August, who'd written "Go," a film viewed as having youth-culture cool even though it was a box-office dud. August kept the setup from the Rowe-Solomon script but trimmed the globetrotting scenes, focusing the story in Southern California, with more "Matrix"-style action for the individual Angels.

"I called Sony and said, 'Have you ever seen the show?' " recalls Juvonen. "It's all about America, but the first script has the Angels in a castle in Europe in snow bunny outfits." The supermodel subplot was out too, for a combination of movie-star vanity and common sense reasons. As Juvonen put it: "The models are totally alienating, just by their looks. They're taller and more beautiful. Why risk the Angels not being the most popular ones in the room?"

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