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New Line work in limbo

Special to The Times

Screenwriters dread executive turnover the way parents dread losing a good nanny -- in other words, who is going to take care of their baby? The justifiable fear is that the scripts that the outgoing executives championed will abruptly become radioactive to their replacements. For the nervous writer, this could mean that his or her screenplay is sold off, redeveloped or written off entirely.

When Time Warner announced Thursday that the struggling New Line Cinema would be folded into Warner Bros. and that its slate would shrink (down to six to eight films a year with development restricted to genre-specific material like horror, low-budget comedy and urban) and that longtime co-Chairmen and co-Chief Executive Officers Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne would vacate their posts, almost every project in development at New Line took on an unhealthy glow.

As a “transition team” reshapes the new New Line division into something more like Dimension Films or Screen Gems, many scripts in its possession are going to have to move out. For all the writers with screenplays in development there -- not to mention the hundreds of employees thrown into limbo -- the question is: What happens now?

“It’s a wait-and-see mentality,” says one manager, who prefers to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize his clients’ projects there.

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Horror remakes, like the Michael Bay-produced “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th,” are likely to stay in New Line’s hip pocket. So are low-budget comedies like “The Grackle,” “The $40,000 Man” and “All You Can Eat.” But higher-budget or prestige dramas and thrillers, such as writer-director Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” Brett Ratner’s production of “Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra” and producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s “Red Cell,” have trickier prospects.

Warner Bros. will get the first option to take or leave New Line’s orphaned projects in what may play like a kind of “fire sale” of all the projects that had stalled or don’t fit the new genre-specific mold. Outside companies will get a shot at some, while Warner Bros. may simply write off a number of projects as losses.

And if production President Toby Emmerich moves into a producing deal, as expected, the compulsion for a new figurehead to clean house will be intense.

The shake-up could have an upside for those whose projects had stalled or who had doubts about post-"Lord of the Rings” New Line’s ability to successfully make, market and release them. "[We’re] trying to be as optimistic as possible,” says producer Marty Bowen. Bowen and partner Wyck Godfrey run Temple Hill Entertainment, whose deal with New Line includes several active projects.

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“If you’re going to read the tea leaves right now, there are certain projects that clearly are going to need another home because they just don’t fit into the economic models of what it seems that New Line wants to do,” says Bowen. “You start to think about what other options might be out there.”

Writer-director Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts”) sent messages to his attorney and agents to weigh the possibilities. New Line purchased his “The Last Full Measure” in 2002 but is no longer actively developing the script. Robinson hopes Warner Bros. will see the potential in his Vietnam War story, which has attracted a cast that includes Morgan Freeman. “I’ve worked for them. It looks like a win-win situation for everybody.”

On the other hand, Robinson says that trying to meet different budget expectations has already forced him to be more creative with the war flashback elements, which could make his story fresher for other suitors. But he’s prepared for whichever outcome.

“If, in the end, they decide not to give it back to me, then that’s what they decide,” he says. “I’ll move on to the next one. But I hope that’s not what happens. I hope that they continue to support all the filmmakers and all the projects that they believed enough in to spend money on.”

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Writer’s long road to ‘Tow’

Hollywood scribes often refer hyperbolically to the terror and torture of being “in the hole” when trying to write, while simultaneously admitting that forced isolation is the only way they’ll get anything done. Well, the story of Darryl Francis -- who inadvertently literalized the circumstance -- may put things in perspective.

Too absurd not to be true, here’s what actually happened:

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Three years ago, talent manager Danny Sherman moved with his then-wife, Wendy, into a home in an un-gentrified Silver Lake neighborhood. While Sherman was at work, a vaguely threatening-looking guy with a teardrop tattoo under his eye would toss wolf whistles Wendy’s way when she came outside. After ignoring him for a few weeks, Wendy finally struck up a conversation and learned he was a 15-year veteran of the neighborhood named Darryl Francis who had recently been released from prison.

“They made nice,” Sherman recalls. “But in the conversation she somehow told him that I represented screenwriters. And, of course, Darryl had a screenplay. And he wanted me to read it. That made me even more worried.”

Apparently, Francis, incarcerated most recently at Wayside county jail (now called the North County Correctional Facility) on a 32-month stretch for receiving stolen property, had found himself in solitary confinement after a little misunderstanding with some Latino inmates. A previous tenant had left a contraband pencil, so Francis used the quiet time -- 43 days, all told -- in the hole to sketch out a comedy idea called “Tow Truck,” chewing away at the pencil tip to sharpen it whenever it got too low. (He also worked on it during a stint at Avenal State Prison.)

What Francis handed Sherman after cornering him on the sidewalk one day with “Are you the manager man?” was 200 pages of handwritten material in different colors of ink and pencil, including 20 pages that a girlfriend had typed up before dumping him. Sherman nervously took the pages, thanked Francis and quietly hoped he’d never see the guy again.

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Then, incredibly, he actually read them. And discovered that the characters and dialogue were hilarious. Francis was not exactly a comedy novice. To keep himself busy and (relatively) safe during the 11 years off and on that he spent in prison, Francis would write funny, fictitious, combative letters from his family and read them to the other inmates as a kind of stand-up routine.

“I was always the clown,” says the 42-year-old Francis, who grew up in South L.A. “I always kept the humor no matter where I was at. Once you accept the fact that you in there, there’s nothing else you can do about it. . . . I just tried to make it work for me.”

Sherman passed Francis’ material to an Emmy-nominated client, Dean Ward (“Talk Soup”), who fleshed out the story and incorporated characters from Francis’ fake letters until they had developed it into the story of brothers who revive a towing business to save their old neighborhood from commercial development.

Ultimately, producers Broken Lizard Industries (“Beerfest,” “Super Troopers”) brought the script to Our Stories Films, which optioned the spec last summer. Ward, Francis and Sherman then sold an animated series, “Letters From Tha Slammer,” to Superdeluxe.com, TBS’ online comedy outlet, based on Francis’ epistolary high jinks (the show will be on the site in a few months).

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“I’m always teasing Darryl that he took the easy way out,” jokes Ward, who’s working on other projects with Francis. “I had 10 years of heartbreak writing spec after spec before I finally sold a script. And he goes to prison, writes one script and sells it. If I had it to do all over again, I’d skip film school and go straight to San Quentin.”

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


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