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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

The saga began with a character that Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee sneaked into the August 1962 issue of "Amazing Fantasy," a comic book Marvel was about to fold. In creating Spider-Man, Lee turned pulp superhero convention on its head. Where Superman, for instance, concealed his omnipotence by assuming a milquetoast alter ego, Spider-Man was a nerd at heart--a bookish high school student named Peter Parker, the butt of bullies' jokes, socially awkward, living on meager resources with his elderly aunt. The mantle of fabulous power hung heavily on Peter's shoulders; every summons to battle a master criminal seemed to mean standing up a girl he'd barely mustered the courage to ask out in the first place.

Unexpectedly, the "Spider-Man" issue outsold anything Marvel had published in years. Within months the new superhero was confronting an endless line of nemeses and personal dilemmas in the pages of his own monthly comic. In time, Spider-Man crossed over into other media, including a syndicated comic strip in newspapers, an hour-long live-action show, and three animated series on American TV.

Yet when Marvel put the feature film rights up for sale in 1985, there were few takers. Hollywood was bored with superheroes. The Superman franchise, launched to huge success in 1979, appeared to have suffered premature arteriosclerosis with the release of the dreary "Superman III" in 1983. Menahem Golan, a Palestine-born producer whose independent company, Cannon Films, distributed foreign-language features for prestige and Jean-Claude Van Damme shoot-'em-ups for profit, acquired the Spider-Man rights for a mere $225,000. The first screenplay he commissioned, by Leslie Stevens, creator of the TV series "The Outer Limits," was by far the most eccentric, featuring Peter Parker turning into a giant eight-legged tarantula. Apparently Golan and his Israeli partner, Yoram Globus, had misconstrued the basic concept. "Golan and Globus didn't really know what Spider-Man was," says Joseph Zito, the first director Cannon assigned to the project. "They thought it was like the Wolfman."

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.

Cannon hired Newsom and his then-partner, John A. Brancato, who had written a well-received screen adaptation of another Marvel comic, to start over. They kept close to the comic books' earliest story lines, matching Spider-Man against Dr. Octopus, a scientist driven mad when his pet project is shut down by corporate meddlers. Golan viewed Spider-Man as Cannon's ticket to the big time. He budgeted the film at nearly $20 million, an enormous sum for the late 1980s.

"This was intended to be the film that put them in the 'A' category," says Zito, who had spent only $2.5 million making his first Cannon film, the successful Chuck Norris vehicle "Missing in Action." Zito brought in Barney Cohen, with whom he had collaborated on a "Friday the 13th" movie, to rewrite the Newsom/Brancato script and give more screen time to the full-fledged Spider-Man as opposed to the developing Peter Parker. Golan and Globus dreamed of hiring Tom Cruise for the lead.

But Cannon, undermined by suspect accounting, was already failing. Golan ratcheted back his ambitions for Spider-Man until Zito finally told him that the remaining budget was too small to do justice to the material.

Golan commissioned numerous further rewrites at Cannon, including one he did himself under the pen name Joseph Goldman. Ethan Wiley, the writer of the cult horror comedy "House" and a specialist in low-budget special effects, was hired in 1988 to write a version that could be shot for about $5 million. Soon after Wiley finished, however, Cannon collapsed. Still holding the "Spider-Man" rights, Golan formed another company, 21st Century Films, and hired other screenwriters, including Frank LaLoggia and Neil Ruttenberg. Golan sent Ruttenberg and LaLoggia's scripts to Columbia Pictures, which was contracting to distribute Golan's movies and had the right to review the scripts. Columbia generated what is known as "coverage," or a short critique, which praised Ruttenberg's draft for its echoes of the recent "Batman" and "Superman" movies.

But the Golan phase of the saga was about to close. Strapped for cash, Golan in 1990 sold the "Spider-Man" rights, along with the screenplays he had commissioned, to Carolco, another ambitious independent studio. Carolco promptly hired James Cameron, then riding the success of "Terminator 2," to write, produce and direct "Spider-Man" for a down payment of $3 million.

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