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Signing on to a writing co-op

As writers take a collective turn, heavy hitters accept less cash upfront in hopes of bigger returns later on.

August 15, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Screenwriters usually operate like lone wolves, or in small packs, but these days they seem to be finding comfort in company -- or at least in writers' collectives. There's the Writers Co-Op formed earlier this year at Warner Bros. by John Wells ("ER") and the 1[dot]3[dot]9 Inc. collective organized by Chris McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects") a few weeks later. Now writers are banding together, at 20th Century Fox, of all places, a studio with a reputation for extremely tight purse strings.

The new Fox cooperative, called Writing Partners, includes equally heavy hitters: John August ("Big Fish"), Michael Brandt and Derek Haas ("3:10 to Yuma"), Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio ("Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"), Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Craig Mazin ("Scary Movie 3"), Simon Kinberg ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith"), Stuart Beattie ("Collateral"), Tim Herlihy ("Happy Gilmore") and Cormac and Marianne Wibberley ("National Treasure"). August and Mazin have spearheaded the effort over the last few months, and after several entities showed interest, Fox Filmed Entertainment Co-chairman Tom Rothman signed off on the deal organized and negotiated by co-presidents of production, Emma Watts and Alex Young.

In what amounts to a first-look deal for the studio, each writer or writing pair in the group gets an upfront fee of $300,000 -- way below their normal quotes -- to write an original feature-length screenplay for Fox in the next four years.

The writer maintains creative control of the script and can make his or her own decisions about which studio notes he's willing to do and whether to allow another writer on board at the studio's or potential director's request. If the writer agrees, the project moves forward. If not, the writer can ultimately walk away with ownership of the script. But the incentive for both parties is to move the script toward production, in which case the writer gets his full standard fee and 2.5% first-dollar gross points on top of the quote.

Gross participation is a rare circumstance and remains a kind of brass ring for screenwriters. Back in 1999, Amy Pascal announced that Columbia Pictures would entice top writing talent by offering more than 30 top-tier writers 2% of "adjusted gross receipts." In that case, the screenplays weren't specs; they were studio assignments, but the upfront fees were much higher. David Koepp, Paul Attanasio, Ron Bass, Scott Frank and Richard LaGravenese all participated in the program, and Bass, Frank and LaGravenese are now members of the Wells co-op. Over its first five years, the Sony arrangement paid out on more than 75 projects, but there was no resulting groundswell at other studios.

Until now.

In the current contract-negotiations climate, screenwriters are proactively taking control of their destinies by seeking to partner with their employers. They're sending a clear message: We will take less money upfront to write commercial movies that we have a strong hand in developing so that we can share in the success and profits if they get produced and make money. The new Fox deal will encourage writers to write the mainstream potential blockbusters that many of them already churn out.

The advantage for the studio will be original feature scripts, with an excellent chance of a high percentage of good, producible projects given the writers involved, many of whom have well-established track records.

And Fox will throw away a lot less development money. Yes, there will be an outlay of $2.7 million in exchange for nine guaranteed feature screenplays, but even $300,000 "wasted" on one that doesn't work is no more than the studio would pay most of these A-list writers for a single week's work on a typical production polish.

(The McQuarrie group is not affiliated with any one studio and is geared more toward encouraging more idiosyncratic projects developed with name actors attached.)

Reactions around town by those who know about the Fox arrangement have been mixed, with writers generally encouraged by the possibilities, while at least one rival studio head decried it as a disaster on par with the day that former Sony topper Mark Canton agreed to pay Jim Carrey $20 million for "The Cable Guy," which blew the roof off of stars' salaries.

The hope that its model would inspire other groups of writers to combine forces is an expressly stated goal of the larger Wells co-op, which includes writers like Nick Kazan ("At Close Range"), Tom Schulman ("Dead Poets Society"), David Benioff ("The Kite Runner"), Callie Khouri ("Thelma & Louise"), Ed Solomon ("Levity"), Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost") and Michael Tolkin ("The Player").

Creatively, Wells acts as the "gatekeeper" who matches projects with the right Warner Bros. executive and mediates requests from both parties.

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