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A dose of reality during the strike

Special to The Times

Remember the 2003 film “The Real Cancun”? No? Oh, c’mon, admit it. You still remember the coed shower scene like it was yesterday.

Heralded as the first foray into “reality features,” “Cancun” played off the proven “Real World"/"Road Rules” formula by sticking a bunch of inebriated teen and twentysomething strangers together in an unsupervised Spring Break scenario. There they could drink and carouse their way to international stardom in front of cameras 24/7. (In truth, “Jackass: The Movie” had already deflowered the reality-feature genre the previous fall when it grossed $64 million.)

Cut into a feature-length narrative instead of 15 grueling weeks of must-avoid TV, the resulting movie took advantage of that medium’s uncensored format. Although “Cancun” didn’t achieve any artistic milestones, it did set a record for turnaround time. Shot over 10 days in March 2003, “Cancun” was in theaters just five weeks later, on April 25.

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As an extra bonus -- and here was the real payoff -- it required no pesky writers (unless you count the savvy editors who fashioned a geek-triumphant narrative out of all the tawdry off-the-cuff footage). With TV and film writers now in their sixth week of striking, this type of material would suddenly seem much more viable again as a cheap and quick way to fill in a hole or two on a studio slate.

Problem is “Cancun” tanked. Developed by the mad geniuses of the form, Bunim-Murray Productions (“The Real World,” “The Simple Life”), and distributed by New Line Cinema, “Cancun” was their rare flop. It grossed less than $5 million theatrically on an $8-million budget, most of which was apparently spent on tequila and infrared cameras. As it happened, the new mini-genre couldn’t even support a second effort, Universal’s “The Quest,” which totally disappeared a few months later.

And yet there are rumblings that several production companies are trying to revive and fast-track reality features in the vacuum left by the strike’s shut-off of new screenplays. A survey of producers and agents found that several had heard of reality feature ideas being floated in recent months, though they doubted that any would actually come to fruition for reasons beyond the flagship “Cancun’s” unceremonious dumping. (Bunim-Murray declined to discuss its plans.)

For one thing, as one Oscar-winning producer put it, the studios rely on having something down on paper, namely a script, to build an economic model for a film before green-lighting anything. Additionally, unlike with TV scripts, the studios are still fairly stocked with shootable feature screenplays, so no one is panicking yet about finding alternative material.

Then again, Hollywood has a pretty short memory, and no ideas are ever truly off the table. If the strike bullies on for a few more months, don’t be surprised to see some reality features turn up in 2009.

These days, viewers can get their reality fix at any time of day on TV already, and those options will only multiply now that the strike has shut down so much scripted production. Case in point: “Run for Money,” a new reality competition series recently green-lighted by the Sci Fi Channel that pretty much steals its setup from Stephen King’s novella “The Running Man,” published in 1982 (and turned into an awful film a few years later).

The joke is that King had imagined a future where reality television had taken over popular culture, including a show on which protagonists compete for money by staying alive hour by hour while official “hunters” and regular civilians try to turn them in or kill them outright.

“ ‘Run for Money’ is a fun, fast-paced thriller of a show and fits nicely with our reality agenda of putting ordinary people in wild, extraordinary situations,” Sci Fi executive VP of original programming Mark Stern told the Hollywood Reporter last week.

Ordinary people in wild, extraordinary situations? OK, permit me to pitch this humdinger: a reality show about striking writers. With the negotiations in tatters, weeks of picketing turning into months, and bank accounts, careers and legacies vanishing, there is no shortage of inherent drama. Throw in a thong and we’re gonna mint money.

It’s quite nice to be on the Black List

On Friday, the annual Black List of “most liked” screenplays of the year among executives and their assistants hit industry in-boxes. Again compiled unofficially and semi-anonymously by Franklin Leonard, a development executive at Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises, the ironically titled list is now in its third year.

Although some high-profile studio screenplays continue to show up on the list, Leonard’s writer-friendly survey is notable for affording newer, less-established scribes an injection of public praise and visibility for their work. In the years since it began, the Black List has proved to be an early harbinger of award consideration.

In 2005, the Black List’s first year, Diablo Cody’s “Juno” and Nancy Oliver’s “Lars and the Real Girl” lodged at Nos. 2 and 3 on the list. These two idiosyncratic efforts, released in theaters this year, shared the National Board of Review’s best original screenplay award, and both writers were just nominated for best writer by the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. Cody’s also been nominated for a 2007 Independent Spirit Award for best first screenplay and certainly must top the shortlist for the Oscar category. (Her comedy-horror script, “Jennifer’s Body,” showed up on this year’s Black List.)

David Benioff’s adaptation of “The Kite Runner” and Peter Morgan’s original screenplay, “The Queen,” also landed near the top of the 2005 list. Morgan won a Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination in 2006, and Benioff’s work seems destined to show up in Oscar’s adaptations this year.

Two screenplays near the top of the 2006 Black List -- Matt Carnahan’s “State of Play” and J. Michael Straczynski’s “The Changeling” -- should be major award contenders in 2008. Director Clint Eastwood is shooting the haunting “Changeling” now, and “State of Play” was recently thrown into and back out of limbo after star Brad Pitt ejected last minute over issues with the script, which had been reworked by Morgan, Billy Ray and Tony Gilroy (Pitt apparently was a fan of the Carnahan version). And Russell Crowe has since stepped into the role that was to be Pitt’s.

For this year’s Black List, 165 people sent in a list of their 10 favorite screenplays. Topping the list with 44 recommendations is “Recount,” a sprawling retelling of the aftermath of the controversial 2000 presidential election written by an actor with no writing credits named Danny Strong (“Gilmore Girls”).

Strong had started writing feature scripts in his downtime as an actor, but the sale of his “Recount” pitch to HBO in early 2006 was his first. It should probably be noted that “Recount” is being co-produced by Mirage; Sydney Pollack was the film’s original director before he handed the hanging chads to Jay Roach (“Meet the Fockers”), who wrapped principal photography on Thursday.

“Once we shoot the movie, it’s not really mine anymore, but the script itself, that is mine,” says Strong, who built his narrative from nonfiction books, newspaper articles, court transcripts and firsthand interviews with the major players. “And to have the people who spend their lives judging scripts respond to it so positively is just very rewarding.”

Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North,” which the young Brit adapted from his own play, is another political drama inspired by real events (Willimon worked for presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004). It received 43 mentions. George Clooney is attached to direct, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring.

Third, with 38 mentions, is “Passengers,” by Jon Spaihts, a science-fiction epic about a man who wakes up 100 years too early from his cryogenic sleep. It remains available despite having Keanu Reeves as a producer.

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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