Writers scramble amid strike phobia

Scripters racing to line up multiple deals

It’s a seller’s market right now, but no one expects the buying binge to last much longer — especially for writers.

Film scribes are caught in a double whammy as strike deadlines approach: Collectively, they are generally less powerful than their actor and director counterparts. Their guild also has the earliest contract deadline and their material has to be ready soonest in order for studios to avoid getting caught in any potential strike crossfire.

So scripters and their handlers are working through weekends to line up as many deals as possible before the drawbridge goes up.

Yes, a few extraordinary projects may be OK’d after the slowdown, expected to hit within the next six to eight weeks as the Oct. 31 WGA contract deadline approaches. Once studios have sated their appetite for scripts, demand will shift to weekly writing assignments and polish work.

“We rep a lot of writers, from top-of-list down, and it’s fast and furious right now. There’s a lot of urgency on both sides — ours and studios — in getting deals done,” says a manager at a major firm, who was among many loath to go on the record.

“Usually, August is dead, but between the TV season, which is under way, and worries about the strike, it’s crazy,” seconds a partner at a rival management firm with its share of top scribes. “I’ve never seen it like this before.”

Strike jitters have started to affect the types of deals being made. Normally choosy scripters are taking projects they’re not jazzed about in order to bank the $250,000 fee. And moldy screenplays suddenly rate a closer look.

For example, one script on the brink of getting made three or four times in the past 10 years recently became “buy-worthy” “because Bruce Willis mentioned it in passing,” says one wag.

Writers are double- and triple-booking projects in fear of a work stoppage, and the pressure for speedy turnarounds is more intense, with deadlines sometimes trimmed by a third. Those who aren’t working are feeling pressure to get a project soon — or consider another line of work.

“It’s definitely not a good time right now. You have agents telling writers they better take a deal if they want to pay their mortgage,” says the prexy of a prolific production outfit.

Pitches and books are still selling, but they have become less desirable than scripts, which are theoretically more production-ready.

Not that the stepped-up pace is all bad.

“The key to this business is being able to focus on a few films at a time,” says Benderspink’s J.C. Spink, who maintains that strike concerns are forcing everyone to do just that.

“Deals always come down to timing,” he adds. “A strike is just another timing issue.”

His firm’s clients, including Oscar winner Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), are busy on a number of projects at studios around town.

Manager Alison Rosenzweig isn’t complaining about the deluge of scripts that have come to her as possible producing vehicles, or as directing projects for her clients. “I’m pleased, obviously, but shocked at the activity,” she says. “August is usually a slower month.”

Rosenzweig, the producer of “Windtalkers,” recently set up “Transit” with Thousand Words and is also producing “Sanctuary” for Lionsgate with Mark Amin.

She is among those concerned that even if the guilds resolve their differences with studios, there will be a de-facto strike due to all the piled-up projects and expenditure to get them started. Others worry that scribes will take on projects they aren’t suited for, and their reputations will take a hit if the scripts aren’t good.

“I believe you have to show restraint and be careful,” a manager says. “It’s a very unforgiving climate.”

Manager Brian Lutz maintains that the market for scripts isn’t much different than usual, noting that clients such as Mark Perez have set up two pitches in recent months — “What About Barb” at Universal and, more recently, “Early Retirement” at Warner Bros. He tries to avoid engaging his clients in strike talk for everyone’s emotional well-being.

“The writers talk among themselves and make themselves crazy,” Lutz says.

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