Iowa, Disney on write track

Walt Disney Studios is going back to school in search of the next hot Hollywood scribe. The company has inked “Dave” writer Gary Ross to supervise a Disney discretionary fund that will set up screenwriting fellowships at the Iowa Writers Workshop atthe U. of Iowa. The program is skedded to kick off with the spring semester.

The gig lands Ross in the heart of the heartland’s literary community. The Iowa Writers Workshop counts John Irving and Flannery O’Connor among its graduates, and has enjoyed teaching stints by John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut.

The Disney program calls for two young Iowa scribes each semester to be awarded $ 2,500 to pursue writing a full-length screenplay. Writers will submit treatments to Ross and Hollywood Pictures senior veepee of production Charles Hirschhorn, who will act the part of studio chairmen, parceling out the cash to the two pitches that hold the most promise. In exchange, Hollywood Pictures gets a first look at the screenplay when it is completed.

The Disney discretionary fund is a pilot program launched by Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael D. Eisner and Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to promote movies that would not normally move forward in the studio system.

Under terms of the pilot program, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures creative executives were allocated between $ 75,000 to $ 200,000 to develop projects as they pleased.

Most of the expenditures, approved by Eisner, Katzenberg, Hollywood Pictures president Ricardo Mestres and Touchstone Pictures president David Hoberman in late 1993, were for short films by unknown directors and development deals for unusual projects by top Hollywood names.

The Iowa Writers Workshop project is one of the few Disney ties with academia.

Ross said he discussed the idea of starting a screenwriting program at a university or college for several months before fixing on Iowa.

“I suggested the Iowa Writers Workshop because I think the best writing goes on there,” said Ross, explaining that he bypassed setting the program up at a film school because of “a jaded quality” to the writing at the movie mills. The program is scheduled to be launched next semester.

With “Dave” grossing $ 63,270,710 domestically in 1993, Ross is not about to postpone his own screenwriting career to ride herd on the fellowship recipients.

And the winners are …

He will sit down with Hirschhorn early in 1994 to read treatments and name the first two fellowship recipients, but will only visit Iowa a few times to make sure the students haven’t suddenly decided to adapt James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” or “Beowulf” for the big screen.

Ross’s participation in the Iowa project expands a relationship with Disney. Though he does have a Sigourney Weaver-action/adventure movie under way at 20th Century Fox, and “Dave” was released by Warner Bros., the majority of Ross’s most active projects are in development at Disney.

Included on Ross’s list is Touchstone Pictures’ “Zapata,” which is based on the life of Mexican revolutionary Emilio Zapata, to be directed by “Like Water for Chocolate” director Alfonso Arau.

Ross and Lauren Shuler-Donner are attached as producers of “Zapata,” which is being penned by “Lonesome Dove” scripter Bill Wittliff. Ross is also prepping for Hollywood Pictures a project on the life of baseball’s Jackie Robinson, which Ross will produce with “Civil War” documentarian Ken Burns and Merchant Ivory Prods. The studio is in the process of hiring a writerfor the movie.

When asked whether he thought the Iowa scribes will come up with a “Lethal Weapon” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Ross said, “That type of project is much more likely to come out of the USC film school. I think we’ll see more eclectic movies. You might see ‘Short Cuts’ or ‘The Player’ or ‘Field of Dreams, ‘ because it was in Iowa.”

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