McQuarrie starts up writing venture

Stars and screenwriters pair on passion films

A dozen screenwriters have formed a cooperative venture that will target the passion projects of major stars in an effort to give both scribes and thesps more control over the creative process.

The new company, dubbed 1.3.9, will marry those projects to their writers, who’ll generate spec scripts that will benefit from notes provided by the other member scribes. The writer will own the project when it is shopped to studios with the actor attached, and 1.3.9 will be involved as a producer.

The venture is just getting under way with screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (“Valkyrie”), Erik Jendresen (“Aloft”), John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”), John Ridley (“Undercover Brother”), Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (“Losing Isaiah”), Graham Yost (“Speed”), Howard A. Rodman (“Stompanato”), Stephen Chbosky (“Rent”), Barbara Benedek (“Sabrina”), E. Max Frye (“Something Wild”), Ron Nyswaner (“The Painted Veil”) and one writer who declined to be named.

Spearheading 1.3.9 is the Oscar-winning “Usual Suspects” scribe McQuarrie and Jendresen, who is best known for “Band of Brothers.” They and the other writers are already in the process of setting the first project with a superstar whose identity they are keeping secret.

The business plan took a year to formulate, and its inspiration was the collaborative experience each writer enjoyed while mentoring newcomers in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Effort marks the second time this year that prominent scribes have banded together to improve their place at the creative table. In March, the Writers Co-Op was formed by John Wells and 19 writers including Scott Frank, Ed Solomon, David Benioff and Richard LaGravanese.

Under the 1.3.9 plan, the scribes will generate original scripts at a drastic discount until the film gets made. Then, they get their usual fee and a gross percentage, creative input as producers and a guarantee they won’t be rewritten unless they agree to it. Though the bargaining position of writers at 1.3.9 will be strong because they own a script with a star attachment, the commercial aspirations won’t be near those of the Writers Co-Op.

“Wells’ group is reducing the cost of developing commercial material for a studio, while we’re developing more personal projects for actors who can’t get them made themselves,” McQuarrie told Daily Variety. “Every actor I ever met has a dream project. They’re frustrated, because they have rich development deals at studios and the power to make what they want to make, so long as they never make the movies they really want to make.”

Despite studio reluctance to invest development money, a package of a modest-budget project with an eager star is catnip to executives and financiers, and that’s why 1.3.9 is going directly to talent.

“The existing system is designed to keep the writer and the star apart; there is always interference from the studio and the producer,” McQuarrie said. “This creates a personal level of involvement for both parties.”

The architects of the venture are bullish enough about it that they’ll publish a business plan through the Writers Guild, so that other scribes can form their own collective pods. One potential snag: What if a star takes 1.3.9 through the process of writing a daring, edgy project and then gets cold feet? McQuarrie said the script’s ownership stays with the writer, and the actor can become a producer along with 1.3.9.

Finally, McQuarrie said the new venture is set up to overcome the biggest pitfall of new-fangled companies for writers and directors — follow-through.

That has been the biggest source of skepticism for the Writers Co-Op and a new attempt to restart a directors company, with “Traffic” producer Laura Bickford talking with Steven Soderbergh, Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, David Fincher and possibly Mike Nichols to get independent coin and make films the directors will control and own.

The other big question is whether the writers and directors will stick with the venture and turn down lucrative studio assignments to work for nothing.

At the directors’ company formed at Paramount in the 1970s with Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin, Coppola directed 1974’s “The Conversation” and Bogdanovich made 1973’s “Paper Moon” and 1974’s “Daisy Miller” under the banner, but the venture crashed. McQuarrie said 1.3.9 was deliberately constructed in a loose manner that will eliminate such pressures. There is no studio first-look deal, no overhead, assistants, not even an office. The scribes will operate from their homes, and much of 1.3.9 is secrecy-shrouded. Most of the members don’t even know the origin of the company name, which McQuarrie said was an obscure reference that he and Jendresen devised.

“Our door is open, but it’s not a real door because we exist in the ether,” McQuarrie said. “There is no ego, nobody is spending money, and even if it takes years for a project to gestate, that will be OK,” he said. “What we have here is an opportunity for writers and actors to jam and make some good movies.”

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