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Not the same old system, folks

Special to The Times

With hopeful rumblings of a potential contract agreement between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers buoying the town’s spirits, many writers and their reps have already turned to speculation about the strike’s aftermath. Since even a “positive” outcome (i.e. any kind of resolution at all) means going right back to selling to the same companies you’ve demonized for months, the initial re-integration could be, shall we say, tricky.

The question for many writers is, once the inevitable initial deluge of spec material disgorges itself, what will be the longer-term fallout from the conflict?

The television system seems poised for the biggest shift in policy. At the same time that the networks want to bring greater economic responsibility to their development spending, bad blood between the two groups may also dampen relations for the foreseeable future.

“The welfare system is hereby over,” declares one screenwriter with projects at several studios, who requested anonymity out of fear of WGA reprisals.

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In the pre-strike world, the networks typically hedged their bets by purchasing scores more pilot scripts than they ultimately would film and air. So any writer-producer in that loop had a good shot of selling a pitch during pilot season. Network executives are sending the signal that the inherent waste that comes with that extra padding will be curtailed, especially when put in the context of the profit-gouging counter-arguments they made in response to WGA revenue-sharing demands.

“When you get the [Peter] Chernins involved at that level -- and I think they will be now -- then their response is going to be, ‘It’s our fiduciary responsibility to be smarter about the way we spend things,’ ” says this writer. “Spending even $75,000 or $125,000 on a younger TV writer -- you do that enough and you’re talking real money. So I think you’re going to see things tighten in that regard.”

NBC Universal President and Chief Executive Jeff Zucker has been especially vocal about the networks’ need to be more strategic in their acquisitions and development decisions.

“I think that they all want to take advantage of this right now and say, ‘All right, let’s realign the model that we use, " says Steven Pearl, who, with his producing partner, screenwriter Allen Loeb (“21"), has just executive-produced new pilots for ABC and A&E.; Pearl admits that the development process is “ridiculous” -- spending millions of dollars to develop and shoot each pilot in the hope that one may be a breakout every year or so -- but thinks the trimmed-down alternative doesn’t make sense either.

“There’s a flawed logic in that,” Pearl says. “It’s kind of like, you go to a roulette table, you can put all your money on number 26, or you can scatter it around so you minimize your risks, so at least you’ll have some sort of return. If you only develop 10 scripts, and all 10 of those scripts come back and [they’re awful], then what do you do?”

As for feature writers, the anecdotal evidence suggests that while many honored their picketing commitments and turned to writing novels-in-progress, children’s books, plays, comic books and the like over the last three months, very few began new original screenplays (the one type of screenwriting the strike rules allowed).

So some speculate that, unlike after the 1988 strike, the spec material that will circulate soon after the deadlock is broken won’t be especially fresh, and sales will be fewer than many hope.

Rewrite work may be plentiful in the short term, as studios hustle to get stalled scripts for 2009 releases back into production as quickly as possible, but pitch sales may grow fairly stagnant. Even if writers are prepping for the end of the strike, their reps may be harder to rouse.

“I have sensed a great lethargy from the agencies,” says one writer who is a client of a major talent firm. “But I also think there’s a sense of not trusting what we’re hearing, because we’ve been at that point before” where a deal is imminent.

The bigger issue for feature writers may be remuneration. Yes, gains will have been made in compensation for the reuse of digital content and sales of downloads and DVDs. But studios were already squeezing screenwriters to drop fee quotes on specs and assignments before the strike, so the belt-tightening and bitterness will surely amplify this trend. (One wonders why more of this frugality isn’t directed at the movie stars who are paid 20 to 50 times what the writers are, but why ask a question no one wants to answer?)

All of which may be the strongest argument yet for maintaining some control online, since a shrinking traditional TV and film market will make the Web much more viable and attractive to writers who can’t get features and pilots on the ledger.

But maybe it’s all just temporary. Grudges or not, everyone will still be working toward the same goal (popular entertainment, big audiences, bigger revenues). And nothing rebuilds a burned bridge in this town faster than a shared success.

“It’ll get resolved, and then people are going to be really [angry] at each other for a little while,” says one former agent of 18 years who requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize projects in his new capacity as a producer. “Then some writer and producer are going to have a hit movie together, and it’s all going to be OK.”

Circuitous routes of 25 scripts

Aspiring screenwriters and other film buffs tend to gorge on stories about how a writer managed to get this or that script over the fence and into a theater. Maybe that’s because it happens in so many different ways that every time a unique story is added to the archive it seems to increase one’s own odds just a little bit.

In that case, “Screen Plays: How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You -- For Better or Worse,” by Variety reporter David S. Cohen, will probably make it onto a lot of those bookshelves (it was released Tuesday by HarperCollins. Cohen largely pilfered his own past pieces for Script magazine to explore the creative origins of each considered screenplay -- some reasonably well-known, others not -- and the writers’ methods, styles and personal histories. He includes brief breakdowns of the scripts’ story lines and elucidates how they ended up in their final big-screen form to help establish that “writing a movie is a bit different from writing a screenplay.”

Cohen took care to include not just mainstream studio fare like Susannah Grant’s Oscar-nominated “Erin Brockovich,” John Logan’s Oscar-nominated “The Aviator” and David Benioff’s “Troy,” but also work from mavericks like John Waters (“A Dirty Shame”), Todd Solondz (“Happiness”) and Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”). He even scored some phone time with the famously reclusive Charlie Kaufman, who talks about the logic problems he had to overcome when trying to realize the full screenplay promise of the original brilliant idea behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

None of the chapters has quite the depth or comprehensiveness that you wish it did, and on the whole the enterprise ends up feeling pretty wispy in a genre dominated by Peter Biskind’s kitchen-sink reportage or even Sharon Waxman’s “Rebels on the Backlot.” But it’s not hard to forgive Cohen for keeping the spotlight on the screenwriter.

The book does include some choice nuggets. Black apparently began “Kiss Kiss” as a romantic comedy in the James L. Brooks mold. And during its long development, Milo Addica and Will Rokos once changed their Oscar-nominated “Monster’s Ball” script at a producer’s request so that the Halle Berry character’s son, instead of dying in the car accident, is nursed back to health by Billy Bob Thornton’s character.

The book is most effective and instructive in its analyses of those screenplays that didn’t work out on screen, such as Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal’s “Mona Lisa Smile,” and the Faustian bargains that come with decisions out of a writer’s control. In that specific case, nabbing Julia Roberts for the lead got the film a budget, a greenlight and a potential blockbuster.

But those same elements necessitated changes in the script that drained the story of its individual character and caused the movie to suffer middling critical and box-office response. (By the way, the writers’ original inspiration for Julia’s feminist-before-her-time Wellesley professor was . . . Hillary Clinton.)

And for those who want to compare for themselves how a few screenplays were transcribed to their finished versions, this month Newmarket Press is publishing the next volumes in its Shooting Script Series, which include introductions by the writers of three of this year’s Oscar-nominated screenplays: “Juno,” “The Savages” and “Atonement.”

Confronting evil, real and imagined

On Thursday night, I was upstairs at Michael’s in Santa Monica taking a stroll through the absurd back-lot world captured so distinctively by photographer David Strick, whose work has appeared in Gap ads and Time magazine. The restaurant was hosting an artist’s reception to launch “Other Angles,” an exhibit on display through March 31 that highlights Strick’s artful and wry juxtapositions of the mundane and the fanciful in Hollywood’s dream factory. (Strick once followed me around the “Poseidon” set for a piece I wrote for Premiere on being an extra.)

Amid the chattering crowd, I ran into Pulitzer Prize-winning KCRW-FM and Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern. When we fell into a discussion about “No Country for Old Men,” Morgenstern related how he had been dining at a lively Spago in mid-December when he overheard a man at the table behind him going on about movies.

The man turned out to be Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, apparently not just a lifelong crime fighter but a bit of a film nut as well. Morgenstern engaged Bratton in some more movie talk, and they eventually got around to the Coen brothers’ latest tour de force, which is up for eight Oscars, including best picture and adapted screenplay.

“Now that I have you here,” Bratton said, “what did you make of the dream at the end?”

Morgenstern responded that for him it represented “the enormity of evil. That there’s always too much of it.”

Bratton took this in as Morgenstern then asked, “Now that I have you, what do you make of it in your job? How do you deal with it?”

“I can’t afford to have a philosophy about it,” Bratton responded. “So I quantify it. Ten years ago, we had about 700 murders a year in L.A. As of today, that number is at 354 --"

Here, Bratton cut himself off, pulled out his BlackBerry and checked something.

After a moment, he looked back up at Morgenstern.

“Three hundred and fifty-six,” he said.

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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