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A team that’s picked up steam

Special to The Times

Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant sat down on a patio at the San Diego Convention Center Saturday morning -- with Lennon in Lt. Dangle sunglasses, natch -- as they prepped for a Comic-Con panel that included footage from their new comedy “Balls of Fury.” They seemed relaxed, if a little awed, by the hijacking of the once-"secret” comics convention by the behemoth film industry.

Their own stature has ballooned comparably. They’ve already turned in a first draft of a sequel to the $251-million-grossing “Night at the Museum,” and they’re tweaking their own script for “How to Survive a Robot Uprising” at Paramount for the long-attached Mike Myers.

Despite the perverse sense of humor they’ve displayed in “The State” and the “Reno 911!” TV show and movie in the last four years, Lennon and Garant have become the comedy rewrite guys studios have on speed-dial -- they’ve been called in on “Starsky & Hutch,” “Herbie Fully Loaded” and the first “Museum.”

“We don’t change our sensibility based on the kind of movie we’re writing,” Lennon says. “The sense of humor from ‘Reno 911!: Miami’ and ‘Night at the Museum’ is basically the same.”

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And yet, they claim to know just where that “hard line” is with regard to ratings, and when not to cross it.

“When you’re writing on ‘Night at the Museum,’ you don’t have to remind yourself: ‘No masturbation jokes,’ ” Garant says.

“It’s easy to remember,” Lennon adds.

Lennon and Garant’s “Balls of Fury” has been floating around since 2000, when they first came across an article about Werner Schlager, an Austrian ping-pong champion with Elvis-like fame in Asia usually reserved for martial arts masters.

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Garant: “So we thought, why not just do . . . “

Lennon: " . . . a revenge kung fu movie in which you took out most of the kung fu.”

Garant: “But when the two champions meet, they don’t kung fu, they ping-pong. It’s not really a stretch. . . . " They laugh. “But it is. It’s a very, very aggressively stupid film.”

Lennon: “As you could probably tell by the title.”

Survival skills

The filmmakers behind “I Am Legend” -- notorious for its legendary 10-year-plus development -- are apparently feeling bullish on its franchise prospects five months before the film (finally) opens. Original writer Mark Protosevich has already pitched Warner Bros. on a sequel, though no deal has yet been finalized.

This provides an interesting twist on one of Hollywood’s more famously frustrating development stories, as well as, surely, some satisfaction for Protosevich (“The Cell,” “Poseidon”). It has been more than a decade since he wrote an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 horror/sci-fi novel about the last man alive after a biological war.

The project originally hooked Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1997, but that version fell apart. Writers were occasionally hired to work on it, and the future Governator briefly revived it as a producer and brought in Michael Bay and Will Smith. Over the years, Protosevich was hired four different times to tweak the script, until writer-producer Akiva Goldsman took on the project in 2005 and moved the action from L.A. to New York City. Last year, Warner Bros. finally pulled the project together with Smith and “Constantine” director Francis Lawrence for a Dec. 14 release.

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(Matheson’s much-loved story has been adapted twice before, as “The Last Man on Earth” in 1964 and “The Omega Man” in 1971.)

There is no word yet on how Protosevich plans to extend the story of lone military scientist Robert Neville’s struggle to survive against a mutant populace. But it’s a good bet that he’s setting it at least 10 years in the future.

All due credit

The high school ecosystem of “Bratz” -- in the tradition of “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” before it -- can be pretty cutthroat for its striving, self-conscious young female characters. But it’s got nothing on the disappointment and scars often waiting for screenwriters who enter a Writers Guild credit arbitration hearing.

Susie Singer Carter (“Cake,” “Men in Trees”) is the latest in a long line of writers who feels betrayed by the system: “I just experienced the worst month of my career, which by all rights should have been my best,” says Carter, an actor and TV writer whose first shot at a produced film credit on “Bratz” was recently denied by the guild’s arbitration panel.

Carter was the last writer to work on the project. Hired in early December during auditions, she stayed on as a writer and consultant when production started in February. She even waived her associate producer credit to improve her chances on the writing credit -- and ended up with neither.

To add insult to injury, the film’s producers were apparently confident enough in Carter’s contributions to the script that they had Lionsgate print the one-sheet posters for the film with Carter’s name in first position (followed by ultimately credited screenwriter Susan Estelle Jansen, and Adam de la Peña & David Eilenberg, who ended up with story credit).

This is not as rare as it seems, since studios can begin marketing a film long before the WGA decides credit. John Sayles (“Lone Star”) had his name on the Universal one-sheets for “Apollo 13" before losing credit during arbitration (William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert were the only credited writers). And it happens the other way too: Jay Wolpert’s story credit on “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was left off the Disney one-sheets.

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(Arbitration can also result in credit when little was earned, or even desired -- just ask some of the A-list writers whose highly paid rewrite gigs on studio pap led to a credited legacy they would have preferred to keep quiet.)

It’s a process that periodically goes through shifts in policy, but like Western democracy, ultimately looks better on paper than it sometimes does in practice.

As a final consolation, producer Avi Arad wrote a short encomium thanking Singer Carter for “her indispensable contribution” to run at the start of the film’s end-credits crawl. But the guild forced its removal from prints (also not the first time that’s happened).

“With virtually no grievance process, I feel impotent and vulnerable against a union that I pay dues to protect me,” Carter says. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.


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