Signing on to a writing co-op

Times Staff Writer

Screenwriters usually operate like lone wolves, or in small packs, but these days they seem to be finding comfort in company -- or at least in writers' collectives. There's the Writers Co-Op formed earlier this year at Warner Bros. by John Wells ("ER") and the 1[dot]3[dot]9 Inc. collective organized by Chris McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects") a few weeks later. Now writers are banding together, at 20th Century Fox, of all places, a studio with a reputation for extremely tight purse strings.

The new Fox cooperative, called Writing Partners, includes equally heavy hitters: John August ("Big Fish"), Michael Brandt and Derek Haas ("3:10 to Yuma"), Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio ("Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"), Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Craig Mazin ("Scary Movie 3"), Simon Kinberg ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith"), Stuart Beattie ("Collateral"), Tim Herlihy ("Happy Gilmore") and Cormac and Marianne Wibberley ("National Treasure"). August and Mazin have spearheaded the effort over the last few months, and after several entities showed interest, Fox Filmed Entertainment Co-chairman Tom Rothman signed off on the deal organized and negotiated by co-presidents of production, Emma Watts and Alex Young.

In what amounts to a first-look deal for the studio, each writer or writing pair in the group gets an upfront fee of $300,000 -- way below their normal quotes -- to write an original feature-length screenplay for Fox in the next four years.

The writer maintains creative control of the script and can make his or her own decisions about which studio notes he's willing to do and whether to allow another writer on board at the studio's or potential director's request. If the writer agrees, the project moves forward. If not, the writer can ultimately walk away with ownership of the script. But the incentive for both parties is to move the script toward production, in which case the writer gets his full standard fee and 2.5% first-dollar gross points on top of the quote.

Gross participation is a rare circumstance and remains a kind of brass ring for screenwriters. Back in 1999, Amy Pascal announced that Columbia Pictures would entice top writing talent by offering more than 30 top-tier writers 2% of "adjusted gross receipts." In that case, the screenplays weren't specs; they were studio assignments, but the upfront fees were much higher. David Koepp, Paul Attanasio, Ron Bass, Scott Frank and Richard LaGravenese all participated in the program, and Bass, Frank and LaGravenese are now members of the Wells co-op. Over its first five years, the Sony arrangement paid out on more than 75 projects, but there was no resulting groundswell at other studios.

Until now.

In the current contract-negotiations climate, screenwriters are proactively taking control of their destinies by seeking to partner with their employers. They're sending a clear message: We will take less money upfront to write commercial movies that we have a strong hand in developing so that we can share in the success and profits if they get produced and make money. The new Fox deal will encourage writers to write the mainstream potential blockbusters that many of them already churn out.

The advantage for the studio will be original feature scripts, with an excellent chance of a high percentage of good, producible projects given the writers involved, many of whom have well-established track records.

And Fox will throw away a lot less development money. Yes, there will be an outlay of $2.7 million in exchange for nine guaranteed feature screenplays, but even $300,000 "wasted" on one that doesn't work is no more than the studio would pay most of these A-list writers for a single week's work on a typical production polish.

(The McQuarrie group is not affiliated with any one studio and is geared more toward encouraging more idiosyncratic projects developed with name actors attached.)

Reactions around town by those who know about the Fox arrangement have been mixed, with writers generally encouraged by the possibilities, while at least one rival studio head decried it as a disaster on par with the day that former Sony topper Mark Canton agreed to pay Jim Carrey $20 million for "The Cable Guy," which blew the roof off of stars' salaries.

The hope that its model would inspire other groups of writers to combine forces is an expressly stated goal of the larger Wells co-op, which includes writers like Nick Kazan ("At Close Range"), Tom Schulman ("Dead Poets Society"), David Benioff ("The Kite Runner"), Callie Khouri ("Thelma & Louise"), Ed Solomon ("Levity"), Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost") and Michael Tolkin ("The Player").

Creatively, Wells acts as the "gatekeeper" who matches projects with the right Warner Bros. executive and mediates requests from both parties.

The Fox collective has no such producer or point person, so it's as if each of the nine writers or writing groups has its own deal with the studio. Any gross participation revenue generated from one of the group's projects flows in its entirety directly to the individual writer.

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Norton shows muscle on 'Hulk'

A few weeks ago, a minor controversy sprung out of Marvel's "Incredible Hulk" panel at Comic-Con that had a lot of fans both scratching their heads and pointing their fingers. And no, it wasn't griping about Liv Tyler being cast as Betty Ross or fears that the Hulk was going to CGI-fly again. As with most mini-scandals, it turns out to have been both more and less than it first appeared to be.

When it was revealed that Edward Norton, who had been cast as the scientist-gone-green Bruce Banner, had also written the script, it surprised and confused a lot of folks who thought that Zak Penn had written the screenplay. Penn, who has worked on half a dozen Marvel movies, including the last two "X-Men" installments, "Elektra" and, as one of his first Marvel assignments a dozen years ago, what eventually became the first, Ang Lee-directed "Hulk," had actually spent a year writing the screenplay before Norton became involved.

At first blush, it looked like just another case of a screenwriter getting disrespected while a movie star with a reputation for aggressive involvement in scripts had bullied his way into writing this one.

"Both panels were excellent for Marvel Studios," says Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige, who was also there presenting "Iron Man." "I think the only bit of bungling on my part was not clarifying Zak's role up there in front of 7,000 people, which I then tried to clarify in some round tables I did 20 minutes later after the 'Iron Man' panel."

Of course, nothing prevented Norton from speaking up about Penn, and it didn't help that the actor, by many accounts a very smart guy (and a closet comic book geek), had long since acquired a reputation for stepping on writers' toes when it came to script revisions.

Widely credited with doing substantial uncredited work on "Frida" for then-girlfriend Salma Hayek (who was the film's producer and star), Norton had also shown up on the set of "Red Dragon," for example, with new script pages not only for his character but for Dr. Hannibal Lecter as well. Other people on the film describe director Brett Ratner fighting with Norton over the issue, and Anthony Hopkins reportedly expressed his comfort with speaking the original lines written by Ted Tally, an Oscar winner for his adaptation of "Silence of the Lambs." (Norton's publicist maintains that Ratner asked him to write new pages.)

In the case of "Hulk," after another writer's treatment was declined in early 2006, Marvel hired Penn, who wrote three drafts over a year. By spring 2007, Penn was about to go off to promote his movie "The Grand," but the studio and the director, Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter"), still felt that the screenplay needed work.

When Norton came in to meet about starring as Banner in April, the film had already been greenlighted and there were just three months before shooting was scheduled to begin, just after Independence Day. But Norton had well-established (if underground) writing experience and strong ideas about how to separate the film from any confusion over its connection to the 2003 Ang Lee version by casting it in a more distinct, starting-over vein like "Batman Begins" or "Casino Royale."

So Norton's initial deal included payment not just for his acting services but for his writing talents too, with his draft contractually stipulated to be turned around in less than a month. As it turned out, Norton delayed work on another screenplay job to do "Hulk," and he continues to tweak the script as principal photography hits its halfway point outside Toronto.

Meanwhile, Penn is writing a big-budget version of "The Avengers" and yet another potential "X-Men" spinoff.

As for Norton's writing services, now that he's finally gone "legit" as a paid double threat, other filmmakers may come calling. "Yes, he is that good a writer that I would definitely work with him on another movie that he wasn't starring in," says Feige.

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. E-mail fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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