Untangling the Web

Trust a screenwriter to find the moral of his own life story in another movie. In Ted Newsom's case, the movie is a farce.

"There is in this whole affair a faint whiff of 'Duck Soup,' " he says, referring to the Marx Brothers classic about a preposterous war between two fictional European principalities. "Like that scene where Trentino offers to call off the war and Groucho says, 'You can't, we already have our uniforms on.' " It's a perfect analogy, he suggests, for the war he never sought with the Writers Guild of America.

Tall and wiry, with the world-weary air of someone who has navigated the twisted logic of Hollywood's customs for too many of his 49 years, Newsom is waging the loneliest fight in the movie industry. At issue is his claim for credit on the script of what is almost certain to be one of the blockbuster movies of the spring--the $100-million Columbia Pictures production of "Spider-Man," based on the popular comic book hero.

"Quixotic" does not begin to describe this battle. Facing him across the trenches are some of the most potent names in town. The sole credited screenwriter is David Koepp, whose other credits include "Mission: Impossible," "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park." Koepp's source material for his script included a screen treatment written by James Cameron.

It doesn't help that Columbia sees "Spider-Man" as one of its most important projects ever. Or that Newsom's claim dates from a screenplay that he co-wrote 17 years ago. Or--the unkindest cut of all--that the Writers Guild, which for 60 years has been the sole arbiter of screenwriting credits in Hollywood, has refused to consider Newsom's plea to have the shooting script of "Spider-Man" scrutinized for possible similarities to his own, as well as to drafts by at least four other writers dating to 1993 and earlier. "The rules do not allow everyone who seeks credit to be accorded credit," says Cheryl Rhoden, the guild's assistant executive director.

The guild's obstinacy perplexes and infuriates some of Newsom's fellow "Spider-Man" screenwriters, including several who don't necessarily believe any of their material was used in the final script. Some see the guild as protecting Columbia, which might prefer to have its movie associated with a single A-list screenwriter (Koepp) rather than a handful of relative unknowns. "It smells funny, if you're the paranoid type," says Ethan Wiley, who wrote a "Spider-Man" script in 1988. "I can't understand why the guild insists that five or eight drafts of 'Spider-Man' don't exist. They exist, and there's a clear lineage."

The genealogist of this particular family tree is Newsom, whose curiosity was rekindled last spring when he read a late draft of the "Spider-Man" screenplay by Koepp and discovered that the villain was one Dr. Octopus--the same villain Newsom and his partner had written into a "Spider-Man" script in 1985. "That was the flag that went up," Newsom says.

It was not that he felt plagiarized--after all, Dr. Octopus was one of the villains in the original "Spider-Man" comic books on which his and Koepp's screenplays were both based. But under guild standards, even the selection of such details from original sources sometimes warrants screenwriting credit for the initial screenwriter.

As Newsom read through Koepp's draft and, later, the final shooting script, he detected further echoes of his screenplay, including elements that were not derived from the original comics--character traits, relationships, bits of screen business and even snatches of dialogue.

"I said to myself: 'Hmm, this may be more complicated than I thought,' " Newsom says. Eventually he compiled a 25-page digest of similarities between his screenplay and the shooting script, sent the list to the Writers Guild for a ruling--and waited. About the last thing he expected was the answer he received: Legal technicalities barred him from credit consideration.

Fights over screenwriting credit are common in Hollywood. They seldom involve claims as straightforward as plagiarism or copyright infringement because it is understood that the studios own the screenplays and possess the right to rewrite, mix, blend and otherwise manhandle them at will.

"A lot of times, when two guys go up to accept an award for a screenplay, that's the first time they've met, and they hate each other," says Barney Cohen, who worked on an early "Spider-Man" draft for Cannon Films and later created the television series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

Instead, the main recourse for a writer whose material has gone into the Hollywood blender is to seek credit by presenting his or her case to a panel of three unpaid and anonymous arbitrators chosen from the guild membership. The arbitrators must read every disputed draft and calculate the weight of every claimant's contribution. The stakes can be enormous: hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and residuals as well as the prestige and future commissions that flow from being associated with a successful picture.

The variations on credit claims under this process are potentially infinite. It's not uncommon for screenwriters who have made minimal contributions to demand credit--and for those who have made major improvements to relinquish it voluntarily. (Of the four writers Columbia lists as contributors to the final "Spider-Man" script, three--Cameron, Scott Rosenberg and Alvin Sargent--voluntarily ceded sole credit to the fourth, Koepp.)

Despite its imperfections, this is a process that most guild members have long accepted. "I've lost arbitrations many times when I thought I deserved credit and won them when I didn't deserve it," says Rosenberg, who is best known as the writer of "Con Air" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds."

The disputes are often hellishly complicated, but the principle the guild instructs arbitrators to follow is simple: The text rules. The guild's manual for arbitrators instructs them to disregard "extraneous factors," such as whether a project was already underway at a studio when a script was written.

Arbitrators also must disregard a later writer's claim not to have seen earlier drafts, because producers or directors may have seen them and passed story elements to later writers. "Although a writer may claim in all honesty not to have seen any prior literary material," the manual reads, "the arbiters must act on the basis that there is presumptive evidence that a writer did, in fact, have access--if a significant similarity exists."

But the guild also maintains that not everyone who has ever written for a project has a right to arbitration. That right belongs only to so-called "participating writers" who were directly involved in writing the screenplay, were employed by the production company on the story or screenplay, or worked as professional writers in stage, screen or fiction for at least three months. The guild contends, essentially, that because Newsom did his work for a company other than Columbia, he doesn't meet that standard.

Guild officials refuse to discuss the specifics of Newsom's case, including how it differs from other cases that the guild has subjected to arbitration, or why he doesn't meet the other definitions of "participating writer." They argue simply that the guild's standards for defining "participating writers" are "fair and reasonable," in Cheryl Rhoden's words.

Others contend that, in this case, the guild is favoring the powerful over the powerless, a tendency for which it has been criticized in the past. "The obligation of the guild is to follow its own procedures and give a guy a hearing," says Howard Suber, an emeritus professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and a frequent expert witness on creative control issues. "I'd like the guild to come up with three examples where they've come to the defense of weak writers despite pressure from the studios. I suspect they'd have a difficult time of it."

Newsom's supporters also argue that the guild's position ignores the contractual maze characteristic of many projects in Hollywood. "What happened to Ted presents a really difficult matter for a lot of writers," says Suzanne Spillane, Newsom's lawyer and an expert on creative rights. "You write a script, it floats around, it's revised, and because of corporate changes or corporate dramas, it becomes more and more difficult to establish who owes an obligation to you. Companies go belly up and the assets are gobbled by bigger studios, and the writers with contractual rights are totally ignored. Ted and a lot of other writers are just screwed."

By Hollywood standards, the screenwriting history of "Spider-Man" is simple, with only eight drafts truly at issue. The complication derives not from the scripts but from the underlying reason that 17 years passed between Marvel's first sale of the "Spider-Man" movie rights and the character's appearance on the screen: the lawyers got their hands on him.

The saga began with a character that Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee sneaked into the August 1962 issue of "Amazing Fantasy," a comic book Marvel was about to fold. In creating Spider-Man, Lee turned pulp superhero convention on its head. Where Superman, for instance, concealed his omnipotence by assuming a milquetoast alter ego, Spider-Man was a nerd at heart--a bookish high school student named Peter Parker, the butt of bullies' jokes, socially awkward, living on meager resources with his elderly aunt. The mantle of fabulous power hung heavily on Peter's shoulders; every summons to battle a master criminal seemed to mean standing up a girl he'd barely mustered the courage to ask out in the first place.

Unexpectedly, the "Spider-Man" issue outsold anything Marvel had published in years. Within months the new superhero was confronting an endless line of nemeses and personal dilemmas in the pages of his own monthly comic. In time, Spider-Man crossed over into other media, including a syndicated comic strip in newspapers, an hour-long live-action show, and three animated series on American TV.

Yet when Marvel put the feature film rights up for sale in 1985, there were few takers. Hollywood was bored with superheroes. The Superman franchise, launched to huge success in 1979, appeared to have suffered premature arteriosclerosis with the release of the dreary "Superman III" in 1983. Menahem Golan, a Palestine-born producer whose independent company, Cannon Films, distributed foreign-language features for prestige and Jean-Claude Van Damme shoot-'em-ups for profit, acquired the Spider-Man rights for a mere $225,000. The first screenplay he commissioned, by Leslie Stevens, creator of the TV series "The Outer Limits," was by far the most eccentric, featuring Peter Parker turning into a giant eight-legged tarantula. Apparently Golan and his Israeli partner, Yoram Globus, had misconstrued the basic concept. "Golan and Globus didn't really know what Spider-Man was," says Joseph Zito, the first director Cannon assigned to the project. "They thought it was like the Wolfman."

Cannon hired Newsom and his then-partner, John A. Brancato, who had written a well-received screen adaptation of another Marvel comic, to start over. They kept close to the comic books' earliest story lines, matching Spider-Man against Dr. Octopus, a scientist driven mad when his pet project is shut down by corporate meddlers. Golan viewed Spider-Man as Cannon's ticket to the big time. He budgeted the film at nearly $20 million, an enormous sum for the late 1980s.

"This was intended to be the film that put them in the 'A' category," says Zito, who had spent only $2.5 million making his first Cannon film, the successful Chuck Norris vehicle "Missing in Action." Zito brought in Barney Cohen, with whom he had collaborated on a "Friday the 13th" movie, to rewrite the Newsom/Brancato script and give more screen time to the full-fledged Spider-Man as opposed to the developing Peter Parker. Golan and Globus dreamed of hiring Tom Cruise for the lead.

But Cannon, undermined by suspect accounting, was already failing. Golan ratcheted back his ambitions for Spider-Man until Zito finally told him that the remaining budget was too small to do justice to the material.

Golan commissioned numerous further rewrites at Cannon, including one he did himself under the pen name Joseph Goldman. Ethan Wiley, the writer of the cult horror comedy "House" and a specialist in low-budget special effects, was hired in 1988 to write a version that could be shot for about $5 million. Soon after Wiley finished, however, Cannon collapsed. Still holding the "Spider-Man" rights, Golan formed another company, 21st Century Films, and hired other screenwriters, including Frank LaLoggia and Neil Ruttenberg. Golan sent Ruttenberg and LaLoggia's scripts to Columbia Pictures, which was contracting to distribute Golan's movies and had the right to review the scripts. Columbia generated what is known as "coverage," or a short critique, which praised Ruttenberg's draft for its echoes of the recent "Batman" and "Superman" movies.

But the Golan phase of the saga was about to close. Strapped for cash, Golan in 1990 sold the "Spider-Man" rights, along with the screenplays he had commissioned, to Carolco, another ambitious independent studio. Carolco promptly hired James Cameron, then riding the success of "Terminator 2," to write, produce and direct "Spider-Man" for a down payment of $3 million.

The main product of this contract was what has become one of the legendary artifacts of this complicated affair: Cameron's 57-page "scriptment"--a hybrid treatment and script outlining the movie in a prose narrative with interpolated snatches of dialogue. Cameron maintains that he developed the 1993 scriptment exclusively from the original comics rather than other screenplays. "He was aware that some prior writers' material existed," says Rae Santini, Cameron's spokesman and president of his production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. "And he elected not to read any of it."

Cameron painted Peter Parker in darker hues than the previous writers had: morally ambiguous, profane, even sadistically violent. He gave Parker's love interest the name of Mary Jane Watson, who in the comics is a neighborhood girl attracted to Parker. But he also gave her the snobbish, upper-crust personality of several other girls in the original material, along with a drunken, abusive father. The arch-criminal is a small-time hood accidentally invested with electromagnetic powers, resembling the comics' Electro.

Among the changes Cameron made in the source material was the nature of Spider-Man's web shooters, which Stan Lee had conceived as mechanical contraptions designed by Parker and filled with glue. Believing these wouldn't go over on-screen, Cameron endowed Parker with organic spinnerets growing out of his wrists.

Despite Cameron's claim to have started from scratch, Newsom detected a few echoes of preceding drafts, such as the villain's exploitation of electromagnetic disturbances as cover for his crimes, which was part of the story in the Newsom/Brancato version. Thanks in part to its author's prominence and its endorsement by an enthusiastic Stan Lee, the Cameron scriptment became the core document of the succeeding screenplays. But its path from page to celluloid was not smooth.

In 1995 Carolco went bankrupt. By then, Marvel was also bankrupt. The lawyers soon discovered that Marvel had sold overlapping licenses for a Spider-Man film to three companies on terms that were sometimes contradictory and often poorly documented. Each of the licensees had in turn sold pieces of its rights to others, with the result that MGM, Viacom, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and various Hollywood hangers-on all claimed the right to make or distribute a picture about a high school wallflower with fantastic powers. The legal maze involved four bankruptcy cases and five lawsuits involving 18 separate written agreements. No one was ready to back off. The lawyers would keep Spider-Man bottled up for four more years.

In March 1999, Columbia Pictures president Amy Pascal announced the rebirth of Spider-Man. With the litigation finally settled, Columbia had acquired the exclusive right to make the movie. Columbia viewed "Spider-Man" just as Menahem Golan had 15 years earlier--as the basis of a franchise that could stretch on forever, sequel building upon sequel. Hollywood economics having evolved with time, Columbia's "Spider-Man" was budgeted at more than $100 million.

James Cameron, now in his post-"Titanic" king-of-the-world phase, was no longer associated with the project. But Columbia had acquired his scriptment from MGM, which had inherited the document out of the Carolco wreckage and described it for legal purposes as "an undated treatment identified on the cover as 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' a treatment for a film by James Cameron."

The other "Spider-Man" writers had moved on. Barney Cohen was developing new projects and living on the annuity he had earned as the creator of TV's "Sabrina." Ethan Wiley was working on a screenplay based on the life of jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, and Frank LaLoggia was planning a $5-million stock offering via the Internet to finance a movie about Michelangelo's creation of the sculpture "David." Neil Ruttenberg was teaching middle school in West L.A. and writing a novel.

The Newsom/Brancato partnership had broken up. Brancato scored a success co-writing the screenplay for the 1997 thriller "The Game." (He is currently writing "Terminator 3" for Columbia's parent, Sony Pictures, and has decided not to pursue a credit claim on "Spider-Man.")

Newsom occasionally wrote unproduced screenplays and worked on projects for the straight-to-video market. In 1994 he anticipated a moment of the Zeitgeist by directing "Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora," a documentary about an inept Hollywood director that reached theaters just before the release of Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," a big-budget feature about the same director.

Over the years, Newsom kept his finger on the "Spider-Man" pulse, tracing the screenplay's fortunes in court and in preproduction. By 2000 he possessed a library of more than 10 drafts of "Spider-Man" screenplays. In late May 2001, having learned that shooting had wrapped on the Columbia version, he placed a call to the Writers Guild to ask what procedure would be followed to determine screenwriting credit.

"The question I had for the guild was pretty academic," he says. "I'd seen the Cameron treatment and knew it was substantially different from the previous material." He also knew that David Koepp's first draft had closely followed the Cameron version. But Koepp's second draft, the latest that Newsom had seen at the time and the one that reinstated Dr. Octopus, struck him as a reversion to an earlier era. The use of Doc Ock could be coincidental, he reflected, although any "Spider-Man" screenwriter could have chosen from among scores of other villains featured in the original comics. As he read on, he recalls, he detected more traces of his and Brancato's script: the appearance, for instance, of an officious corporate suit who thwarts Dr. Octopus' research, triggering his villainous rampage, and who does not appear in the comics. Once he received a copy of the shooting script, Newsom found other similarities (although Dr. Octopus had been dropped as the heavy in favor of the Green Goblin). The remaining similarities ranged from the jejune (Spider-Man making a quip highlighting the taxonomic distinction between insects and spiders) to the telling (in both versions, Parker discards his eyeglasses after discovering that they now blur his suddenly perfect eyesight--a scene that does not appear in the comics).

Newsom grew convinced that he and several other writers might have arbitrable claims. In his view, his and Brancato's contract was part of a chain of title that ran from Cannon to Columbia via Carolco and MGM, which listed it and contracts with six other Cannon and Carolco screenwriters among the assets it acquired out of the Carolco bankruptcy. "Spider-Man," Newsom reasoned, should be considered a single project beginning with Golan and ending with Columbia. And he could show that later screenwriters, including Cameron and Koepp, had access to reams of prior material, including his own. Cameron, after all, at least theoretically had access to his script, and Koepp had used Cameron's treatment. Columbia had reviewed the Ruttenberg and LaLoggia drafts when they were submitted by Golan.

Newsom swiftly enlisted LaLoggia, Wiley, Ruttenberg and Cohen to support his request. (Leslie Stevens had died in 1998.) The Writers Guild was not interested. After Newsom filed his arbitration request in June, nearly five months passed without a written response--to Newsom, that is. In August, the guild's screen credits administrator, Sally Burmester, wrote to Columbia's legal department to say that after analyzing the material, the guild agreed with Columbia's position that the studio had never acquired or seen "Spider-Man" material by Newsom and Brancato or the four other writers and could legitimately exclude them from any credit.

The guild will not comment on the extent of its investigation or why it failed to discover that several earlier scripts had been read and "covered" at Columbia during the Golan era.

Only after Newsom filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over the guild's lack of response did the union write back to him. Although the Nov. 9 letter acknowledged that MGM had acquired the rights to the Newsom/Brancato screenplay, it concluded that Columbia had obtained from MGM only an option to the material, which it did not exercise. For that reason, "Sony [Columbia] did not acquire the team's material," said the letter by Cathy R. Reed, the guild's director of credits administration. Furthermore, Reed wrote, "there was a significant lapse of time between the team's writing agreement . . . and the active development of the Sony Picture that commenced in 1999."

As for Columbia, the studio was content to leave the matter in the guild's hands. "They determine who the participating writers are and who deserves credit," says Roger Toll, the studio's executive vice president for legal affairs.

To Newsom and his supporters, the guild letter read as though it had reached its conclusions first, and then developed a legal rationale. The guild seemed to focus on the contractual relationship among the writers and studios rather than the texts, which were all that counted under the guild's rules. It overlooked evidence that Columbia had access to previous drafts. As for the lapse in time, many movie projects took years to get to the screen, and 17 years was hardly a Hollywood record.

The guild's position seemed to divide the "Spider-Man" project into two parts, pre-Cameron and post-Cameron, and to render all of the pre-Cameron work irrelevant. "It's a major problem," says Wiley, who is furious at the guild's refusal to follow its own process. At one point he asked a guild official what recourse he would have "if the final draft of 'Spider-Man' had taken my script word-for-word. She said my recourse might be to sue for copyright infringement or plagiarism."

If so, that's a huge loophole, because Hollywood screenwriters do not own the copyright to their scripts. Those belong to the production companies that hire them. In this case, the companies that employed Wiley, Newsom and the others were hardly in a position to sue Columbia--they are defunct. "I began to see that there could be an opportunity for further abuses," Wiley says. "A producer might say, 'I'm not going to technically obtain that material,' and thus would have no obligation to give credit. And that puts writers in a precarious position."

The open invitation to bring a lawsuit also smacked of cynicism, given the expense of litigation and the small potential return. "The guild is telling them, 'Get thee to a courtroom,' but that's only for the hardy," says Pierce O'Donnell, the Los Angeles attorney who represented Art Buchwald in his successful lawsuit claiming that Paramount Pictures misappropriated his idea for the Eddie Murphy vehicle "Coming to America." O'Donnell says he now reluctantly turns down such cases because they almost never pay. "You get a first-time writer where the fee he's suing for is maybe $250,000. One-third of that (the lawyer's cut) doesn't cover Xeroxing costs. If you tell a guy he's outside the guild's arbitration process he has no choice."

Indeed, Newsom's options continue to shrink as the May 3 premiere of "Spider-Man" approaches.

"It may be too late to argue for credit," he acknowledges. "We'll continue to assemble a war chest and pursue it for four or five years, and ultimately we'll win. It'll be a pyrrhic victory. It's idiotic because the film will make a half-billion dollars, and this was never about money. There's a bigger wrong to address here than one guy's script 17 years ago. What's the good of having the guild if producers can circumvent it by not paying for something?"

*

'Spider Man' scripts were developed over a period of 17 years for four movie studios. Among the highlights:

Cannon Films

'85

Leslie Stevens writes original screenplay; his Spider-Man turns into a tarantula with eight legs.

Ted Newsom and John Brancato hired to write a more conventional screenplay based on the Marvel comic.

'86

Director Joe Zito brings in Barney Cohen to rewrite Newsom/Brancato.

Menahem Golan rewrites Cohen and Newsom/Brancato under the pseudonym "Joseph Goldman."

'88

Ethan Wiley hired to write low-budget version with scant special effects.

21st Century Films

'89

Frank LaLoggia collaborates with Golan on film treatment for Golan's new company, 21st Century Films. Quits after Golan demands complete rewrite.

'90

Neil Ruttenberg writes original script based on the comic books. Golan submits LaLoggia and Ruttenberg scripts to Columbia to meet terms of 21st Century's distribution deal with the studio.

Carolco Picture

'92

Carolco signs James Cameron ("Terminator 2") to write, produce and direct "Spider-Man." Result is a seminal 57-page "scriptment" with dialogue.

Columbia Pictures

'99

Columbia signs David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Lost World") to write its big-budget version based on Cameron scriptment and original comic books

'00-'01

Koepp writes two major drafts, which are subjected to numerous revisions, including uncredited rewrites by Scott Rosenberg and Alvin Sargent.

'02

"Spider-Man," with screenplay credited solely to Koepp, scheduled for May 3 release.

*

Michael A. Hiltzik last wrote for the magazine about Nobel laureate William Shockley.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

This letter published April 21, 2002:

'Spider-Man' Saga Continues

Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 6 inches; 206 words Type of Material: Letters to the Editor

Thanks to your magazine and writer Michael A. Hiltzik for the article on the "Spider-Man" screenplay saga ("Untangling the Web," Special Hollywood Issue, March 24). One fact seems to get lost in the myriad complications: no one at the Writers Guild has ever read the screenplays concerned. Barney Cohen, Ethan Wiley, Neil Ruttenberg, Frank LaLoggia, several others and I were never afforded a hearing by our peers--that is, other writers. The accepted process of arbitration was circumvented by a toss of a coin in the credits administration, which didn't read the scripts either. Also, although I thought Hiltzik's article was terrific, he misquoted me quoting Groucho Marx in "Duck Soup." The line should be, "It's too late. I've already paid a month's rent on a battlefield."

Ted Newsom Via the Internet

--- END NOTE ---

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 3, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction "Spider-Man" script--A March 24 Magazine article about the origins of the script for the movie "Spider-Man" ("Untangling the Web," Special Hollywood Issue) incorrectly identified Barney Cohen as the creator of the TV series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Cohen served as an executive consultant on the series. It was created by Nell Scovell, based in part on an original TV movie co-written by Cohen. For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction A March 24 article about the origins of the script for the movie "Spider-Man" ("Untangling the Web," Special Hollywood Issue) incorrectly identified Barney Cohen as the creator of the TV series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Cohen served as an executive consultant on the series. It was created by Nell Scovell, based in part on an original TV movie co-written by Cohen.
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