Last week’s top movie, “Beverly Hills Ninja,” spent more than 10 years in development, bouncing from studio to studio before it landed in a familiar place: the hands of the original writers.
Exercising a little-used clause of the Writers Guild of America contract, scribes Mitch Klebanoff and Mark Feldberg reacquired the rights to their script and quickly turned around the project, selling it to Motion Picture Corp. of America, which was ready and waiting with Chris Farley attached.
The WGA’s “reacquisition clause” is intended to give writers the chance to buy back their material, reactivating long-dormant scripts lying in studio vaults. In fact, many writers don’t even know the clause exists, believing that the sale of their scripts is final.
“Beverly Hills Ninja” is believed to be the first time that the clause has been used and resulted in a project making its way to the screen.
In general terms, the clause says that if a studio has had an original script for five years, and if the script is no longer in active development, the writers have a window of two years after that to buy back the rights. The price: what they were originally paid. Then, the company that buys the project from the writers also has to pay additional script costs – such as fees paid to other writers in its previous development – when principal photography is completed.
The theory, says Grace Reiner of the WGA, is that “if you haven’t made a film in five years, and it is not in active development, the chances are you are not going to make it. These are projects floating around that people want to make, but they can’t afford the turnaround.”
Writers who trigger the clause don’t have to pay other fees, like producers’ overhead, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a script in lengthy development. With overhead, the cost of reacquiring “Beverly Hills Ninja” almost certainly would have reached into the stratosphere.
Klebanoff and Feldberg had sold the script to United Artists for $150,000 in 1986, just before their first feature project, “Disorderlies,” was released at Warner Bros. Among the first stars attached to “Ninja” was Dana Carvey.
In 1995, with it clear that the project was dead, Feldberg and Klebanoff exercised the WGA clause. MPCA’s Brad Krevoy quickly acquired the rights, having made a $6 million pay-or-play offer to Farley. MPCA ultimately had to pay an extra $127,600 for additional script costs, as required by the WGA clause, Reiner noted.
“The number of people who were associated with this screenplay is extraordinary,” Krevoy said. “The key point is that the writers have this reversion. They get it back into play.”