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Untangling the Web

Ted Newsom Wrote a Screenplay for 'Spider-Man' 17 Years Ago. His Fight for Credit Is Just One of the Steps on Our Hero's Tortured Path to the Screen.

March 24, 2002|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK

Trust a screenwriter to find the moral of his own life story in another movie. In Ted Newsom's case, the movie is a farce.

"There is in this whole affair a faint whiff of 'Duck Soup,' " he says, referring to the Marx Brothers classic about a preposterous war between two fictional European principalities. "Like that scene where Trentino offers to call off the war and Groucho says, 'You can't, we already have our uniforms on.' " It's a perfect analogy, he suggests, for the war he never sought with the Writers Guild of America.

Tall and wiry, with the world-weary air of someone who has navigated the twisted logic of Hollywood's customs for too many of his 49 years, Newsom is waging the loneliest fight in the movie industry. At issue is his claim for credit on the script of what is almost certain to be one of the blockbuster movies of the spring--the $100-million Columbia Pictures production of "Spider-Man," based on the popular comic book hero.

"Quixotic" does not begin to describe this battle. Facing him across the trenches are some of the most potent names in town. The sole credited screenwriter is David Koepp, whose other credits include "Mission: Impossible," "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park." Koepp's source material for his script included a screen treatment written by James Cameron.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 3, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
"Spider-Man" script--A March 24 Magazine article about the origins of the script for the movie "Spider-Man" ("Untangling the Web," Special Hollywood Issue) incorrectly identified Barney Cohen as the creator of the TV series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Cohen served as an executive consultant on the series. It was created by Nell Scovell, based in part on an original TV movie co-written by Cohen.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
A March 24 article about the origins of the script for the movie "Spider-Man" ("Untangling the Web," Special Hollywood Issue) incorrectly identified Barney Cohen as the creator of the TV series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Cohen served as an executive consultant on the series. It was created by Nell Scovell, based in part on an original TV movie co-written by Cohen.

It doesn't help that Columbia sees "Spider-Man" as one of its most important projects ever. Or that Newsom's claim dates from a screenplay that he co-wrote 17 years ago. Or--the unkindest cut of all--that the Writers Guild, which for 60 years has been the sole arbiter of screenwriting credits in Hollywood, has refused to consider Newsom's plea to have the shooting script of "Spider-Man" scrutinized for possible similarities to his own, as well as to drafts by at least four other writers dating to 1993 and earlier. "The rules do not allow everyone who seeks credit to be accorded credit," says Cheryl Rhoden, the guild's assistant executive director.

The guild's obstinacy perplexes and infuriates some of Newsom's fellow "Spider-Man" screenwriters, including several who don't necessarily believe any of their material was used in the final script. Some see the guild as protecting Columbia, which might prefer to have its movie associated with a single A-list screenwriter (Koepp) rather than a handful of relative unknowns. "It smells funny, if you're the paranoid type," says Ethan Wiley, who wrote a "Spider-Man" script in 1988. "I can't understand why the guild insists that five or eight drafts of 'Spider-Man' don't exist. They exist, and there's a clear lineage."

The genealogist of this particular family tree is Newsom, whose curiosity was rekindled last spring when he read a late draft of the "Spider-Man" screenplay by Koepp and discovered that the villain was one Dr. Octopus--the same villain Newsom and his partner had written into a "Spider-Man" script in 1985. "That was the flag that went up," Newsom says.

It was not that he felt plagiarized--after all, Dr. Octopus was one of the villains in the original "Spider-Man" comic books on which his and Koepp's screenplays were both based. But under guild standards, even the selection of such details from original sources sometimes warrants screenwriting credit for the initial screenwriter.

As Newsom read through Koepp's draft and, later, the final shooting script, he detected further echoes of his screenplay, including elements that were not derived from the original comics--character traits, relationships, bits of screen business and even snatches of dialogue.

"I said to myself: 'Hmm, this may be more complicated than I thought,' " Newsom says. Eventually he compiled a 25-page digest of similarities between his screenplay and the shooting script, sent the list to the Writers Guild for a ruling--and waited. About the last thing he expected was the answer he received: Legal technicalities barred him from credit consideration.

Fights over screenwriting credit are common in Hollywood. They seldom involve claims as straightforward as plagiarism or copyright infringement because it is understood that the studios own the screenplays and possess the right to rewrite, mix, blend and otherwise manhandle them at will.

"A lot of times, when two guys go up to accept an award for a screenplay, that's the first time they've met, and they hate each other," says Barney Cohen, who worked on an early "Spider-Man" draft for Cannon Films and later created the television series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

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