Not Grumpy or Old

Ah, to be young, talented and the toast of Hollywood. Mark Steven Johnson, 28, and Kevin Smith, 23, are both screenwriters who have seen their first projects become mini-gold mines in town.

In fact, Johnson is already writing a sequel to his first script, "Grumpy Old Men," for Warner Bros.; the first film cost about $18 million and brought in nearly $70 million at the box office. He's also writing a live-action "Frosty the Snowman" for Warners, as well as a comedy for 20th Century Fox about the first major league female ballplayer called "Balls."

As for Smith, his "Clerks"--which won both the Prix de la Jeunesse and the Critics Week prize at Cannes and was well-received at Sundance--has already nailed down several future projects, even though Miramax is not scheduled to release "Clerks" until Aug. 19.

In fact, "Clerks," a black-and-white slice of life about convenience store clerks in New Jersey, is already becoming something of a mini-Jersey trilogy. Smith is writing a Jersey busboys saga called "Busing" for Disney, and a Jersey boys-go-to-the-mall film for producers Sean Daniel and Jim Jacks at Universal called "Mall Rats," which Smith will direct. He also is writing "Dogma," about growing up Catholic--in New Jersey--for Miramax.

How each lucked into success has the sweet smell of innocence and naivete. Both pulled their stories from experiences in their hometowns.

For Smith, "I was working as a store clerk at the Quick Stop Convenience store in Leonardo (N.J.) and had spent about four months at the Vancouver Film School. I saw 'Slackers' and decided I was going to take the rest of my tuition and put it into a film."

He convinced the store manager, his boss for three years, to let him use the store as the setting. And $27,575 later, Smith had a movie about 12 hours in a convenience store.

"Now these studios want me to do some more of what I call these 'brainy no-brainers.' One of the producers told me they're more like a smart 'Porky's,' " says Smith.

"Mall Rats" will probably have a budget of about $3 million. While Smith says the others will have equally low budgets, no amounts have been determined yet.

Smith won't disclose how much he's received for each of his projects, but Johnson isn't as coy. Johnson says that after the success of "Grumpy Old Men," he's now averaging between $175,000 to $350,000 for his scripts, plus another $175,000 to $200,000 if the films are made. For "Grumpy II," the initial amount jumped to $450,000 because it's a sequel. He will get another $300,000 if it is made.

Johnson, from a middle-class family in Wabasha, Minn., finds the numbers dizzying.

"I still can't get used to it . . . my family can't get used to it," he says. "When I wrote 'Grumpy' I was working as an assistant at Orion Pictures and going to night school at Cal State Long Beach. The studio was in bankruptcy and there wasn't a lot to do. So I made use of the computers and in five weeks wrote 'Grumpy,' which is really a story about my grandfather (the Jack Lemmon character) ice fishing and falling in love in Wabasha."

Johnson didn't really know anybody in the business to pitch his script to. In fact, his big connection at the time was his wife's hospital co-worker, whose cousin used to be an agent. "How's that for a connection? I took a chance and called the guy and he got it to people, who brought it to Warner Bros.," he says.

"I'm the same guy who came to L.A. and called up one of the biggest agents here and said, 'Hi, I'm Mark Johnson.' I really didn't know any better at the time. The only reason the agent took my call is because he thought I was the producer (Mark Johnson, director Barry Levinson's former partner). I didn't know about the producer, but once the agent realized it wasn't him, he told me to take a hike," says Johnson. "See how quickly it can change?"

Johnson says he's no big fan of sequels. "I didn't want to do a 'Grumpy' sequel at first because I don't think they work unless they're a continuation of where the story left off," he says. Expect that of "Grumpy II."

His other Warners projects include a spec script called "Big Bully" for producer Lee Rich, about the lifelong relationship between a childhood bully and his favorite victim. But he's particularly excited about "Frosty," which is going to be directed by Sam Raimi ("Darkman"), executive produced by his partner Rob Tapert and produced by Irving Azoff.

" 'Frosty' would be another comedy but it would also be my first musical to write. It's gonna be a blast with a guy like Sam directing a family movie that has a lot of special effects," says Johnson. The story centers on a little girl whose father has died. She keeps some of his personal effects and one day builds a snowman, dressing him with her dad's pipe, glasses and hat. Frosty comes to life and becomes her protector.

"Balls," the comedy about a female ballplayer named Louise Gehrig, is in the hands of producer David Kirschner ("The Pagemaster").

Both young writers chalk their quick success up to luck, hard work and forever keeping their egos in check. But the producers who are pursuing their projects say talent has a little bit to do with it.

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