Bond, 'Da Vinci,' 'X-Files' on the bubble

Studios that scrambled to stockpile scripts in advance of the writers strike are now forced into a Darwinian dilemma: They must pick the fittest projects, and perhaps scuttle the rest.

For the most part, they are prepared to shoot their locked and cast projects that start within the next month or so, meaning there will be little impact on the 2008 schedule.

But if the strike goes on past the New Year, things start to look a bit more dicey. Every production chief faces the anxiety-filled challenge of actually proceeding with greenlit projects that will shoot under unprecedented duress, and “bubble” projects that have solid scripts but incomplete casting.

An estimated 50 or so projects across studios are at the “go” stage, among them the next James Bond movie, “The Da Vinci Code” prequel “Angels & Demons” and “The X-Files” sequel, rumored to be titled “Done One.”

A producer who has five films on the bubble, however, estimates that as many as 75% of the “go” projects are actually “up in the air.” Inevitably, some will end up on hold or the chopping block.

“The impending strike felt like an anvil over our heads,” says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “Now it feels like it’s landed on our chests. The pressure on the last movies greenlit feels very intense.”

Twentieth Century Fox production chief Hutch Parker insists “we’re in good shape,” with nine movies going into production through March. “The one caveat is, we’ve never done this before.”

To proceed with a project during the strike means no polishes, no response to executive notes, no fixes for actors uncomfortable with their lines, no rethinking of elaborate setpieces that don’t work. Even under the best of circumstances, screenplays require writer-assisted tweaking right up until the first day of principal photography and sometimes throughout the shoot.

Inevitably, this means there will be anxieties over what is ready. One senior ICM agent notes that in 2001, when it looked like writers might walk out, “things got rushed into production, but even then, we had writers available.”

“Studios have been more prepared for it this time around, and have pushed the writers and pushed the projects to get them in the best shape prior to this date,” the agent adds. “But when you’re talking about films that will shoot in February or March, there’s a lot of scripts that still need a lot of work. There’s no two ways about it.”

Despite their best efforts, several studios have potential problem-children on their hands. “There’s no such thing as a locked script,” says one Sony-based producer who has a go project. “That’s just a fact of life. Sometimes you do need more flexibility, and you do need a new scene, and you need to call the writer. That won’t be happening.”

“How can you make a movie without a writer?” asks manager Patty Detroit. “You can’t!”

Writer-director Tony Gilroy is prepared to shoot “Duplicity” with star Julia Roberts.

“I’ve done everything I can do,” he says. “My script could shoot word for word. Everyone is in agreement. But it’s not ideal any way you look at it. This is all an experiment. I’m happy I don’t start shooting till March.”

Sony, for example, has at least two big-budget, high-profile “go” films that may have incomplete scripts and/or major casting holes. Paul Haggis admitted while walking the strike line last week that his script for “Bond 22,” which is skedded to shoot in December, is not locked. Similarly, the script for “Angels & Demons,” which is based on Dan Brown’s wildly popular prequel to “The Da Vinci Code,” was rushed to meet the Nov. 1 deadline. That film also has no players signed beyond star Tom Hanks. Furthermore, the Denzel Washington starrer “Pelham 123 ” is rumored to have script problems.

Many studios are performing triage. When projects are contingent on an actor’s availability, movies that are still not cast pose the biggest headache. “Sony will push everything into production they can with the best version of the script that they have,” says one senior lit agent at CAA. “But the big-budget pictures will finally be driven by the big directors and big actors who are more likely to derail something at the last minute than the studio.”

Major tentpoles are the most vulnerable should the strike drag on. Warner Bros. execs are nervous about how to proceed with “Justice League of America,” which is still uncast and is a crucial potential franchise boasting popular DC Comics characters. While WB expects to move ahead on most of its projects, if the strike extends past February, the studio will have some reevaluating to do. That’s when Warners’ uncast “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” which needs at least three to four weeks of script polishing before its May start, would get into trouble. “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins” will face issues if the strike goes past April. “The Jetsons” has a locked script, but it is uncast.

“For any A-plus production,” the ICM agent adds, “the fact of the matter is that writing work goes on right up until the first day of principal photography or at least up through the read-through with the cast.”

Paramount, on the other hand, threw four pricey A-list scribes at would-be $100-million franchise “G.I. Joe,” which is scheduled to start shooting in February, and swears that the move paid off. Stuart Beattie (“3:10 to Yuma”), John Lee Hancock (“A Perfect World”) and Brian Koppleman and David Levien (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) teamed up in an intense collaboration that yielded, according to di Bonaventura, a shootable script. But will the studio be willing to take a chance on shooting such an important, costly tentpole? The studio insists it will, partly because it isn’t chasing big-name stars.

“We have to make sure the actors are not only good but perfectly suited to their roles,” says di Bonaventura.

DreamWorks/Par’s “Transformers 2″ is far enough along to proceed with pre-production, location scouting and advance VFX work, but will face serious issues if the strike continues for several months. Michael Bay’s megabudget sequel isn’t set to start filming until June. Di Bonaventura’s “Edwin A. Salt” will likely be pushed back, too.

Disney’s June start on Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Prince of Persia,” too, could get into trouble.

“We’ll do everything we can do to make the movies as good as they can be,” says Disney production prexy Oren Aviv. “But the reality is, we wouldn’t be moving forward with the movies we’re greenlighting if I didn’t have confidence in the scripts we have.”

Most of the studios say they are good to go with pics that are locked, cast and prepped, and starting to shoot between December and February. Disney, for example, isn’t worried about the $80 million FX-heavy “Bedtime Stories,” because Adam Sandler is adept at working on his feet. Similarly, Par Vantage is going forward this month with its Will Ferrell/Adam McKay-produced used-car salesmen comedy “The Goods,” starring a cast led by Jeremy Piven. “They can improvise,” one producer says.

But many execs concur that it’s going to be tough to find top-flight comic talent for still-uncast comedies. Everybody’s working. And 2009 could become problematic if the strike causes too many pics to stall.

“If the strike doesn’t end, we won’t make our dates,” one studio production chief says.

Fox is moving full speed ahead with its “X-Men” spinoff “Wolverine,” even though many roles are still uncast. Unlike “X-Men,” “Wolverine” rests solidly on Hugh Jackman’s shoulders.

On “X-Men” pics, Parker admits, writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn were making adjustments throughout production. “Wolverine” will have no such luxury. Most action sequences will be handled in f/x animation.

“The X-Files” sequel, while casting supporting roles, is to start in December, Parker says. Pulling the plug now would be prohibitively expensive.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” will also go forward, as no script invention is required. “That’s a helpful discipline, to be forced to lock these scripts instead of going into production with scripts in flux,” Parker says. “But we could run into little snags ahead.”

Certain changes are permitted by the Writers Guild basic agreement Sections A through H as “non-writing services”: They include switching lines from one actor to another, cutting a scene for length, changes in blocking and minor changes to dialogue. But no adds are permitted, not even pick-ups from the book a movie is based on.

That leaves open the issue of whether during a protracted strike, producers, directors, non-WGA writers and studio production executives will take it upon themselves to improve scripts.

“It’s called scabbing,” says Montecito Films’ Tom Pollock. “The union takes a dim view.”

Some producers plan to hire Brit writers and non-WGA writers. During the 1988 strike, the British and Canadian writers guilds both supported their American brethren, and again have pledged to honor the work stoppage this time around. “The biggest problem is no one knows the rules,” says one studio production head. “No one understands what they can and cannot do. Everything is a moving target right now. Things are dropping out. Things are dropping in.”

In the past, a studio like U has allowed its “Bourne” series to go into production knowing that many changes and improvisations will occur, with many writers brought in to solve script problems in mid-production.

Will it affect Paul Greengrass’ “The Green Zone” with Matt Damon, which is working off an incomplete script? Universal production prexy Donna Langley says it won’t. “We have a solid Brian Helgeland script,” she says. “This movie is more contained than the ‘Bourne’ films. It is a different animal.”

U is examining the prospects for Brad Silberling’s FX-heavy Ferrell comedy “Land of the Lost,” Benicio del Toro starrer “Wolfman” and Ridley Scott’s “Nottingham.” Says Langley, “The script isn’t where we would like it to be.”

One upside of all this madness: During a time of product glut, if fewer movies wind up getting made down the line, theater wickets won’t be so crowded and could yield better box office returns.

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