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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 main product of this contract was what has become one of the legendary artifacts of this complicated affair: Cameron's 57-page "scriptment"--a hybrid treatment and script outlining the movie in a prose narrative with interpolated snatches of dialogue. Cameron maintains that he developed the 1993 scriptment exclusively from the original comics rather than other screenplays. "He was aware that some prior writers' material existed," says Rae Santini, Cameron's spokesman and president of his production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. "And he elected not to read any of it."

Cameron painted Peter Parker in darker hues than the previous writers had: morally ambiguous, profane, even sadistically violent. He gave Parker's love interest the name of Mary Jane Watson, who in the comics is a neighborhood girl attracted to Parker. But he also gave her the snobbish, upper-crust personality of several other girls in the original material, along with a drunken, abusive father. The arch-criminal is a small-time hood accidentally invested with electromagnetic powers, resembling the comics' Electro.

Among the changes Cameron made in the source material was the nature of Spider-Man's web shooters, which Stan Lee had conceived as mechanical contraptions designed by Parker and filled with glue. Believing these wouldn't go over on-screen, Cameron endowed Parker with organic spinnerets growing out of his wrists.

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.

Despite Cameron's claim to have started from scratch, Newsom detected a few echoes of preceding drafts, such as the villain's exploitation of electromagnetic disturbances as cover for his crimes, which was part of the story in the Newsom/Brancato version. Thanks in part to its author's prominence and its endorsement by an enthusiastic Stan Lee, the Cameron scriptment became the core document of the succeeding screenplays. But its path from page to celluloid was not smooth.

In 1995 Carolco went bankrupt. By then, Marvel was also bankrupt. The lawyers soon discovered that Marvel had sold overlapping licenses for a Spider-Man film to three companies on terms that were sometimes contradictory and often poorly documented. Each of the licensees had in turn sold pieces of its rights to others, with the result that MGM, Viacom, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and various Hollywood hangers-on all claimed the right to make or distribute a picture about a high school wallflower with fantastic powers. The legal maze involved four bankruptcy cases and five lawsuits involving 18 separate written agreements. No one was ready to back off. The lawyers would keep Spider-Man bottled up for four more years.

In March 1999, Columbia Pictures president Amy Pascal announced the rebirth of Spider-Man. With the litigation finally settled, Columbia had acquired the exclusive right to make the movie. Columbia viewed "Spider-Man" just as Menahem Golan had 15 years earlier--as the basis of a franchise that could stretch on forever, sequel building upon sequel. Hollywood economics having evolved with time, Columbia's "Spider-Man" was budgeted at more than $100 million.

James Cameron, now in his post-"Titanic" king-of-the-world phase, was no longer associated with the project. But Columbia had acquired his scriptment from MGM, which had inherited the document out of the Carolco wreckage and described it for legal purposes as "an undated treatment identified on the cover as 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' a treatment for a film by James Cameron."

The other "Spider-Man" writers had moved on. Barney Cohen was developing new projects and living on the annuity he had earned as the creator of TV's "Sabrina." Ethan Wiley was working on a screenplay based on the life of jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, and Frank LaLoggia was planning a $5-million stock offering via the Internet to finance a movie about Michelangelo's creation of the sculpture "David." Neil Ruttenberg was teaching middle school in West L.A. and writing a novel.

The Newsom/Brancato partnership had broken up. Brancato scored a success co-writing the screenplay for the 1997 thriller "The Game." (He is currently writing "Terminator 3" for Columbia's parent, Sony Pictures, and has decided not to pursue a credit claim on "Spider-Man.")

Newsom occasionally wrote unproduced screenplays and worked on projects for the straight-to-video market. In 1994 he anticipated a moment of the Zeitgeist by directing "Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora," a documentary about an inept Hollywood director that reached theaters just before the release of Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," a big-budget feature about the same director.

Over the years, Newsom kept his finger on the "Spider-Man" pulse, tracing the screenplay's fortunes in court and in preproduction. By 2000 he possessed a library of more than 10 drafts of "Spider-Man" screenplays. In late May 2001, having learned that shooting had wrapped on the Columbia version, he placed a call to the Writers Guild to ask what procedure would be followed to determine screenwriting credit.

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