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THE 83rd ACADEMY AWARDS

Good idea, but ...

From 'King's Speech' to 'The Fighter,' original screenplay contenders had long, difficult paths to the big screen.

February 20, 2011|Nicole Sperling

David Seidler first sparked to the idea of writing a movie about the life of King George VI in 1980. A stutterer himself, he found the real-life narrative of the English monarch's struggles to overcome a debilitating stammer moving and profoundly relatable, but Seidler understood that it wasn't going to be easy to see his script turned into a feature film.

First, he had to wait for the Queen Mum to die; he had asked the royal matriarch for her blessing to tell her husband's story, and she had requested that he wait until after her passing, since the memories of that time were still too painful. And then, the 73-year-old Seidler explains, there was another, possibly even more significant hurdle: "It was the subject matter.

"If I had gone into any executive office in Hollywood to pitch a story about a dead king who stutters, I would have been out of there in 30 seconds," he said. "They would have thought I was out of my mind."

Seidler has a point. For years now, risk-averse Hollywood studios have been spending their money on the safest bets possible, big-budget projects and potential franchise properties that usually are based on a book, a video game, a toy or even an amusement park ride. It's a trend that shows no signs of abatement, with Universal working to bring Stretch Armstrong to the screen, while Paramount develops a Magic 8 Ball movie among many other projects plucked from the toy aisle.

"We used to make toys based on our movies, and now we are making movies based on toys," said Nina Jacobson, former head of production at Disney who's now an independent producer. "We used to be the generators of intellectual property, not just recyclers of it."

It's a fact that's helped drive many of the industry's most highly acclaimed screenwriters -- people such as Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List") and Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind") -- to devote more of their time to plum writing assignments such as Zaillian's current work on "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and Goldsman's adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower," rather than develop their own ideas.

And it paints a grim picture for many screenwriters hoping to tell original tales, even ones drawn from the lives of compelling people. Among those who will be competing for the original screenplay Oscar when the Academy Awards are handed out Feb. 27, writer-director Christopher Nolan spent 10 years on his mind-bending "Inception" before the film made it to the screen. Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko went through countless drafts in the five years they labored on the script for the Annette Bening-starrer "The Kids Are All Right." And Scott Silver and Paul Tamsay & Eric Johnson, among others, worked on "The Fighter" for five years before cameras rolled on the Boston-based drama in July 2009. (Mike Leigh, the fifth nominee in the category, stands apart from the group; his script for the low-budget indie "Another Year," like many of his films, was workshopped extensively with his actors during a long rehearsals process but was made fairly quickly.)

The other four contenders, though very different, have one thing in common: a long, difficult path to the big screen.

"An adaptation often has an easier road," says Seidler, whose credits also include 1988's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" and 1999's animated telling of "The King and I." "[The studio] has a security blanket with a book. [They say], 'We've optioned a book, it was a successful book.... Now, if the script doesn't turn out well, or the film doesn't turn out brilliantly, then that's not my fault. That's the writer's fault.'"

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Tough times

At one point not so long ago, a well-known writer could pitch an idea to a studio, and if it had potential, he could reasonably expect interest -- and often cash to turn it into a screenplay. But things really began to change after the writers strike in 2007-08. The appetite for original material markedly diminished as studios took the opportunity to cut a lot of the expensive development deals then in place.

"The era of the middle-class writer who makes $250,000 a script and people like them, they don't necessarily deliver movies but they do a good job and they are pleasant to work with, that's done," said an agent who represents screenwriters and directors but asked for anonymity. "That was the staple writer business 10 years ago."

As a result, producers are forced to take on a greater role in advocating for original scripts. "Several years ago, you could walk into a studio with a one-liner and a writer who's written some scripts and sell it in the room if it was commercial enough," says Todd Lieberman, a producer on "The Fighter." "Now you have to prove that there is a movie there, and the best way to prove that is to have the writer write the script."

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