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SCRIPTLAND

Go away quietly? Not these writers

Pair fights studio over film's release and learns the importance of asking a basic question.

March 07, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

Suzanne Francis and Gabe Grifoni apparently didn't get the memo outlining the industry's policy that screenwriters need to take their lumps wordlessly and move on.

Former writers' assistants on such television shows as "Sports Night," "Boy Meets World" and "Scrubs," Francis, 33, and Grifoni, 30, bonded during their 16-hour shifts and finally decided to pool their creative sensibilities three years ago. When a pair of comedy pilots went nowhere, they took a shot at a feature script, a road trip comedy called "Wieners," that in 2005 landed them 40-plus industry meetings, a $100,000 script assignment for Walden Media and an eventual sale to Screen Gems for $170,000 (including the production bonus).

Given unusual access, Francis and Grifoni were then permitted to stay on set for two months during production, asked to write an extra day's worth of promotional material for the marketing team and were invited into the editing room. To the freshman writing team, it was an exciting, illuminating experience. So far, so great.

Then their e-mails were no longer being returned and "Wieners" suddenly seemed headed for a straight-to-DVD release. But in a radical break with convention, the pair didn't roll over in quiet bitterness, just another set of disappointed screenwriters with no power. And they didn't heed the warnings of their agent and manager to keep the grousing in-house and to a minimum. (Grifoni regularly says things like, "The studio is just going about this movie the wrong way because they don't understand it.")

What they did was contact Scriptland for help, apparently seeing the column as an avenue to spark some last-ditch turnaround in Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper. In this, they are either incredibly gutsy or incredibly, well, stupid. The chutzpah! Although taking up their cause was out of the question, I had to meet any writers willing to fight this hard to get their film into theaters.

And fight they have. They offered to finance an extra test screening of their preferred cut. They cut their own trailers on iMovie and then offered to pay so they could test one of them. And despite the potential harm of being branded as troublemakers, they called a major newspaper to try to pressure the studio about to dump their "baby" into Blockbuster.

"We believe in the script and the movie and the cast," Grifoni says over a latte in a Westwood coffee shop. "I don't want to look back 10 years from now and say, 'We didn't do everything possible.' I want to know that we did everything possible to get it into theaters, that we cut our own trailers, that we tried every marketing trick to make this movie a success."

Throughout production and editing, the writers felt the studio was pushing the tone of their "smart dumb comedy" about three losers who road trip to Los Angeles in a homemade Wiener Wagon younger and sillier. The few racier scenes -- a strip club sequence and one involving Jenny McCarthy and a dog that finds its way under her skirt -- were quickly cut, and the two official test screenings were populated with kids as young as 13, a demographic that Francis and Grifoni claim was much younger than their intended target audience.

Both test scores were unimpressive. Finally, at the end of January, Culpepper delivered the disheartening news that throwing $15 million of marketing behind a theatrical release for "Wieners" made no sense for their little $6 million movie, which could easily be recouped on DVD.

"Clint is a really smart guy," Grifoni says. "He knows how to release certain types of movies. This is a movie he doesn't get, and I think the studio hasn't really given the movie a chance to be what it should be."

A call to Screen Gems reveals that, despite Francis and Grifoni's efforts, it is too late -- their Wiener Wagon will not be rolling into theaters. It turns out that, unbeknownst to the ecstatic writers, the film's original financing came out of Screen Gems' acquisitions budget, a decision that indicates that the studio was considering a DVD release from the point of sale. (Screenwriters just wading into Hollywood waters could draw the obvious lesson from this: Before selling your script, ask about the intentions for release.)

Of course, one big upside of the DVD-only release is that Francis and Grifoni now get to restore all the risque material for the de rigueur unrated version -- a small consolation for the writers.

Getting Oscar history straight

William Monahan, our newest adapted screenplay Oscar winner for "The Departed," began his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards nearly two weeks ago by crediting Robert Bolt's screenplay for "Lawrence of Arabia" as a crucial early inspiration. I recounted this in my follow-up column last week, which prompted several cinephiles to urge that a clarification was needed.

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