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Bottom line’s in rewrite

Special to The Times

Negotiating a deal in Hollywood has never been easy, but it’s gotten even tougher lately for non-A-list working scribes looking to get a gig off a pitch, script sale or rewrite. Discussions I’ve had recently with managers, producers, agents and writers for the most part confirm a continuing trend of studios refusing to meet writers’ established fees, or “quotes.”

“I think there’s a movement now by the studios to nullify quotes,” says one writer with projects at almost all the major studios, who requested anonymity so as not to publicly tip his hand about negotiating tactics. “So there’s a real push by the agencies to keep that line.”

No one I spoke with believes that the studios’ more miserly stance is direct retaliation for the Writers Guild’s recent 100-day strike, though indirectly the four-month work stoppage likely brought any wastefulness with script development into sharper relief for the majors. In that sense, the writers may have inadvertently undercut their own livelihoods.

But most see the current tone as merely a continuing trend attributable to the shifting economics of the business. It is causing studios like Disney and Universal (Fox is constitutionally curmudgeonly) to squeeze the salaries not just of writers, but of actors and directors too, though not as harshly.

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With shrinking slates and an unresolved Screen Actors Guild contract negotiation making greenlighters gun-shy, there are fewer active projects looking for actors and directors, so the studios can afford to be more hard-line in their negotiations. (This instability in the film market is also one of the reasons so many actors, directors, writers and agents are currently playing musical chairs with the agencies.)

But the development process is the easiest area in which to pinch pennies (or pens), as one producer points out, because writers are the most vulnerable and at that stage the project is still just a “potential” movie, not an actual “go.”

“They have the leverage, it’s that simple,” says one major agency rep, who asked for anonymity to avoid coloring ongoing client negotiations. “It’s supply and demand. Right now, the supply is high, the demand is low.”

All of which means that a bunch of imaginative creative artists are being forced to make highly pragmatic financial decisions -- and even back off their once-firm quotes.

“There’s not a lot of stuff going on out there,” says the writer. “If you like to work and you like to make money -- both of which I like to do -- then what’s the point of walking away from something over a difference that’s really negligible to retain some quote that no one recognizes? It’s a different world.”

Don’t get too attached

A week doesn’t go by without Brett Ratner, Ridley Scott and/or Leonardo DiCaprio attaching themselves to a new handful of scripts. Or at least that’s how it appears.

But does it ever dilute the writer’s negotiating power when the talent’s hearty “maybe” joins a dozen other “maybe” commitments to other projects around town?

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Having an actor or director attached to your script can certainly increase your sale price, but a good rule of thumb may be this: If your talent is publicly attached to more projects than you have zeroes in the offered purchase price, ask yourself whether it’s important that your film actually gets made. And beyond that, beware of anecdotal evidence that an overbooked or underwhelming attachment can negatively affect your negotiation.

“A ‘meaningful’ attachment is always a plus in our minds, because it’s one piece of the puzzle closer,” says Derek Haas, who penned “3:10 to Yuma” and “Wanted” with writing partner Michael Brandt. “ ‘Meaningful’ meaning there’s a handful of guys, an even smaller handful of actresses, and a handful of directors that a studio would say, ‘We’re going to go make this movie with this guy, just get us a script that we can greenlight.’ Now, if it was a mid-level guy or a mid-level director, then there is a downside, because all of a sudden you’re in a game where maybe the studio doesn’t want to make a movie with that guy. So you’re just eliminating potential buyers.”

In terms of A-list talent who are more liberal with their attachments, studios and production companies operate under the constant fear that some competitor will bet on a script with the same top-tier actor or director attached, and the project will pay off for it instead. Then access to that actor or director could then be cut off for a year.

“Studios always want what they can’t have,” says one rep at a big agency, who asked for anonymity for fear of jeopardizing clients’ prospects. “For them, it’s a numbers game. It’s like being in Vegas and putting your chips on all the roulette numbers and hoping that the ball will hit one of them.”

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But to hedge those bets, the buyer typically first checks with the talent’s agent and/or manager to see just how interested the client actually is (and, in some cases, whether he’s even read the script -- far from a guarantee with some high-profile actors for whom the room service menu is a strain).

Haas points out that when he, Brandt and producers Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler were recently pitching MGM executives on their Robert Ludlum property, “The Matarese Circle,” with Denzel Washington attached, Di Bonaventura underlined it with, “And you know Denzel doesn’t attach himself to very much.”

“That carried weight,” says Haas. “Meaning, ‘He’s serious about it.’ ”

Then again, Haas and Brandt are well-known entities. For the gambling writer not yet in the loop, it would be nearly impossible to say no to even the most whorish attachment since the script’s above-the-marquee endorsement has an additional symbolic measure.

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“What it does do, in terms of strategy, it’s a litmus test,” says manager Brooklyn Weaver, whose client, Brad Ingelsby, recently sold “The Low Dweller” to Relativity Media with DiCaprio and Scott attached. “Whether Leonardo just ends up producing it or whatever, it’s demonstrative of the level of talent that this project will attract. It’s been stamped.”

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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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