Screenwriter Bass may have caught his limit

MEMO TO: RON BASS

FROM: PETER BART

YOU’RE A SAVVY GUY, RON, so I’m sure you understand the ways of the media gods. Once they build you up, they promptly tear you down. So gird yourself: This is the start of the teardown.

And you’ve set yourself up for it, Ron. Capped by the lengthy tribute in this past week’s New Yorker, you’ve been the subject of more laudatory articles than any writer since the once-mighty Joe Eszterhas, and look what happened to him. Exile!

First you were anointed as a billion-dollar screenwriter, after which your agent corrected that number to $2 billion. You signed a mind-bendingly lucrative deal at Sony, which probably guarantees you somewhere between $5 million and $10 million a year. Directors like Steven Spielberg line up for your services, and stars eagerly await your scripts as they pop off the assembly line.

But while your legend continues to heat up, your movies have grown tepid. “Stepmom” seemed mawkish. “Entrapment” made money, but the screenplay was clunky. You yourself have criticized “Snow Falling on Cedars,” albeit pinning the problem on the director’s rewrites.

The good news is you and your six-man inhouse script factory are still churning out seven screenplays a year. The bad news is that people, including some colleagues at Sony, are beginning to wonder whether there’s an inverse correlation between output and inspiration.

Robin Swicord, the screenwriter, is quoted in the New Yorker piece as stating, “At a time when everything in the film business has become corporatized, Ron’s model is high volume. He can turn out many more screenplays than most of us can. He can fit the bill in terms of what the market is asking for. The studios aren’t looking for a vision, they’re looking for product.”

In a similar vein, Kenneth Turan, critic for the Los Angeles Times, recently observed that Ron Bass “seems never to have met a tear he didn’t like.”

Now I realize this sort of talk exasperates you, Ron. Understandably so. You’ve carefully assembled the pieces of the Ron Bass Myth, and they are imposing:

  • Ron Bass is so compulsive he climbs out of bed at 3 in the morning to start his 20-hour writing days. Hence the name Pre-Dawn Prods.

  • Defying the dictum that a writer must isolate himself, Ron Bass has assembled a team who cq perform research, cover properties, contribute story ideas and take scrupulous notes during studio meetings, but “never, never, never” actually write his scripts.

  • While most writers focus on one project at a time, Ron Bass drills away simultaneously at four or five and also gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to troubled projects at Sony.

All this is impressive stuff, Ron. At one time or another just about every writer and writer’s agent in town has traded Ron Bass stories. And the flow of product has been imposing, starting with “Rain Man,” “Sleeping With the Enemy,” “The Joy Luck Club,” “Waiting to Exhale,” “Dangerous Minds” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

There have also been projects that were stillborn. You were infuriated when Warners didn’t shoot your version of “Bridges of Madison County.” Clearly Spielberg has problems with “Memoirs of a Geisha,” because he’s moved on to other projects.

Questions of quality persist. Some fellow writers bridle at the surface emotionalism of your scripts. Characters in your movies are always exchanging loving glances or caressing their pets or giving loved ones bracing words of encouragement. In screenwriting manuals it’s known as Schmaltz 101.

In your days as a working lawyer, you used to crank out deal memos. Now you crank out pathos.

“Entrapment” was a commercially successful movie, but instead of building suspense, you took your audience through one complete caper, then had your characters start on a totally different one. As usual, the mechanics of your plot worked fine; it’s just that the movie seemed mechanical.

It would be fatuous for me to dispense advice to anyone making $10 million plus a year, but I would urge you to think about the following, Ron. You’re a bright and engaging man. You’re also driven beyond all reason.

Take a breath, Ron. Read a few good books. Take a walk on the beach. Teach at a university for a semester. Adopt a couple of children.

It’s good for the soul, Ron. It may even be good for the scripts.

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