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Credit ascribed, denied

Earning recognition as a film's writer can be as labyrinthian as 'Syriana's' plot. To the victors goes the scroll.

December 04, 2005|John Horn and Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writers

MOVIEMAKING has been a collaborative business since Day 1, but rarely have so many screenwriters converged on so few screenplays. While some upcoming holiday films may be credited to just one writer, that hardly means just one writer wrote the whole movie.

In some cases, producers and studios throw different writers at different sections of a story, adding a joke here, some action there. In other instances, a writer -- or team of writers -- does a top-to-bottom rewrite.

The Writers Guild of America is then asked to sort out who did what and award the credits as it deems proper -- a process that invariably leaves someone out in the cold. For example, while only three writers were credited for the first "Charlie's Angels" movie, no fewer than 17 scribes took a whack at its script.

For the writers, screenplay credit carries more than holiday party bragging rights and a chance to field questions at awards season screenings. Nabbing screenplay credit means a writer earns not only a six-figure production bonus but residuals (the industry's term for royalties) as well: On a blockbuster, those residuals can tally more than $1 million. And the Academy Award is given only to the credited writer, even if he or she wrote just two-thirds of the movie.

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Fun With Dick & Jane

Synopsis: Remake of a 1977 comedy about a cash-strapped married couple (Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni) who become robbers to make ends meet. Opens Dec. 21.

Credited writers: Judd Apatow, Nicholas Stoller (credits not final)

Other writers include: David Koepp ("Spider-Man"), Ed Solomon ("Men in Black"), Ted Griffin ("Ocean's Eleven"), Peter Tolan ("Analyze This") and the team of Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer (who did an uncredited rewrite of Carrey's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas")

Back story: Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black") was originally going to direct but left the movie in part over concerns about the screenplay and was replaced by Dean Parisot ("Galaxy Quest"). A host of prominent writers then revised the script by Apatow ("The 40 Year-Old Virgin") and Stoller (TV's "Undeclared"). The rewrites and some late reshoots more than doubled the film's scores in audience previews.

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Memoirs of a Geisha

Synopsis: Long-in-the-works adaptation of Arthur Golden's 1997 novel about a talented and striking Japanese geisha, played by Ziyi Zhang. Opens Friday.

Credited writer: Robin Swicord

Other writers include: Ron Bass, Akiva Goldsman, Doug Wright

Back story: Several directors, including Steven Spielberg, Spike Jonze ("Adaptation") and Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") flirted with this project. Earlier screenwriters included Bass ("Stepmom") and Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind"). When "Chicago's" Rob Marshall was hired to direct, he enlisted Swicord ("Little Women") to start anew. Marshall then brought on Wright ("Quills") to revise Swicord's adaptation. Sony, the film's distributor, asked the Writers Guild of America to credit Swicord and Wright, but the WGA awarded sole "Geisha" credit to Swicord.

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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Synopsis: Adapted from the children's novel by C.S. Lewis, the story follows the adventures of four children in a magical -- and dangerous -- land. Opens Friday.

Credited writers: Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Other writers: None

Back story: Earlier attempts to turn the book into a movie didn't pan out, including a script by Menno Meyjes ("The Color Purple") that took the story from World War II London into modern-day California. That version was ditched, and Peacock's ("A Lesson Before Dying") screenplay got the movie green-lighted. Her script was then revised by director Adamson ("Shrek") and the writing team of Markus & McFeely ("The Life and Death of Peter Sellers"). While it is rare for a director to receive a shared screenplay credit (to avoid credit-grabbing, WGA rules require a greater showing of a director's contributions), the three other credited writers approved the final credit acknowledging Adamson's input.

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Munich

Synopsis: An Israeli Mossad team tracks down and assassinates the Palestinian terrorists who orchestrated the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympians. Opens Dec. 23.

Credited writers: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth

Other writers: Charles Randolph

Back story: The film is based on George Jonas' book "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team," which has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since it was published in 1984. The book was subsequently turned into a 1986 HBO film, "Sword of Gideon," starring Steven Bauer and Michael York. Steven Spielberg and company also conducted original research for this latest version of the story. Oscar-winner Roth ("Forrest Gump") worked extensively on the script. Randolph ("The Interpreter") then polished it before Spielberg pushed back production to accommodate the schedule of Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America" writer Kushner.

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