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The Writers

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

Instead, the main recourse for a writer whose material has gone into the Hollywood blender is to seek credit by presenting his or her case to a panel of three unpaid and anonymous arbitrators chosen from the guild membership. The arbitrators must read every disputed draft and calculate the weight of every claimant's contribution. The stakes can be enormous: hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and residuals as well as the prestige and future commissions that flow from being associated with a successful picture.

The variations on credit claims under this process are potentially infinite. It's not uncommon for screenwriters who have made minimal contributions to demand credit--and for those who have made major improvements to relinquish it voluntarily. (Of the four writers Columbia lists as contributors to the final "Spider-Man" script, three--Cameron, Scott Rosenberg and Alvin Sargent--voluntarily ceded sole credit to the fourth, Koepp.)

Despite its imperfections, this is a process that most guild members have long accepted. "I've lost arbitrations many times when I thought I deserved credit and won them when I didn't deserve it," says Rosenberg, who is best known as the writer of "Con Air" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds."

The disputes are often hellishly complicated, but the principle the guild instructs arbitrators to follow is simple: The text rules. The guild's manual for arbitrators instructs them to disregard "extraneous factors," such as whether a project was already underway at a studio when a script was written.

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.

Arbitrators also must disregard a later writer's claim not to have seen earlier drafts, because producers or directors may have seen them and passed story elements to later writers. "Although a writer may claim in all honesty not to have seen any prior literary material," the manual reads, "the arbiters must act on the basis that there is presumptive evidence that a writer did, in fact, have access--if a significant similarity exists."

But the guild also maintains that not everyone who has ever written for a project has a right to arbitration. That right belongs only to so-called "participating writers" who were directly involved in writing the screenplay, were employed by the production company on the story or screenplay, or worked as professional writers in stage, screen or fiction for at least three months. The guild contends, essentially, that because Newsom did his work for a company other than Columbia, he doesn't meet that standard.

Guild officials refuse to discuss the specifics of Newsom's case, including how it differs from other cases that the guild has subjected to arbitration, or why he doesn't meet the other definitions of "participating writer." They argue simply that the guild's standards for defining "participating writers" are "fair and reasonable," in Cheryl Rhoden's words.

Others contend that, in this case, the guild is favoring the powerful over the powerless, a tendency for which it has been criticized in the past. "The obligation of the guild is to follow its own procedures and give a guy a hearing," says Howard Suber, an emeritus professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and a frequent expert witness on creative control issues. "I'd like the guild to come up with three examples where they've come to the defense of weak writers despite pressure from the studios. I suspect they'd have a difficult time of it."

Newsom's supporters also argue that the guild's position ignores the contractual maze characteristic of many projects in Hollywood. "What happened to Ted presents a really difficult matter for a lot of writers," says Suzanne Spillane, Newsom's lawyer and an expert on creative rights. "You write a script, it floats around, it's revised, and because of corporate changes or corporate dramas, it becomes more and more difficult to establish who owes an obligation to you. Companies go belly up and the assets are gobbled by bigger studios, and the writers with contractual rights are totally ignored. Ted and a lot of other writers are just screwed."

By Hollywood standards, the screenwriting history of "Spider-Man" is simple, with only eight drafts truly at issue. The complication derives not from the scripts but from the underlying reason that 17 years passed between Marvel's first sale of the "Spider-Man" movie rights and the character's appearance on the screen: the lawyers got their hands on him.

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