Group gives screenwriters a voice

Nineteen top scribes have enlisted in the Writers Co-Op, a production venture to be housed at John Wells Prods.

Co-Op is designed to give gross participation to screenwriters, along with a voice in how their scripts are turned into films. It will be staked under a first-look deal by Warner Bros., where Wells is based.

Over the next four years, the Writers Co-Op will generate at least 18 scripts from writers who will risk their usually high upfront salaries for the reward of receiving first-dollar gross, the right to participate as producers and a guarantee they will not be rewritten without their consultation and approval. The scribes will also have a say in the decisionmaking process from development all the way to post-production.

Program is the brainchild of Wells, Nick Kazan and Tom Schulman. While it seems like a dream for scribes, the venture was also enticing to Warners.

The writers will cut their upfront fees by as much as 90% for a first draft and potentially up to two sets of revisions. Scripters will receive their full standard fees and production bonuses for films that get made.

In an era in which studios often run through development budgets months before the completion of a fiscal year, the Co-Op deal will give Warners a low-cost first crack at a minimum of four scripts per year by some of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers. Over four years, WB will pay 10% of what conceivably would have cost the studio tens of millions of dollars in development costs to get at least 18 scripts.

The Co-Op starts with Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), Henry Bean (“Internal Affairs”), David Benioff (“Troy”), Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”), Robert Nelson Jacobs (“Chocolat”), Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”), Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), Richard LaGravanese (“The Fisher King”), Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”), Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”), Stephen Schiff (“The Deep End of the Ocean”), Schulman (“Dead Poets Society”), Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), Dana Stevens (“For Love of the Game”), Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), Michael Tolkin (“The Player”), Rafael Yglesias (“Fearless”), and the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“City Slickers”).

“This is a great moment for screenwriters,” said Wells, who’ll provide half of the overhead and staff infrastructure, with Warner providing the rest. “This undertaking champions the writer’s voice, as well as affords artists an opportunity to reap a more substantial reward from their work in exchange for assuming more upfront risk.”

As scripted, the formula for the Writers Co-Op could go a long way toward displacing the notion that scribes are eminently disposable. Few writers have ever received gross deals except on sequels.

The key to success, though, will be follow-through and execution. Most writers on the Co-Op roster work regularly, receiving seven-figure salaries for assignments and six figures-per-week paychecks for rewrites and polishes. Upfront paydays for Co-Op projects will be comparatively miniscule for scripts the writers will hatch from scratch.

The Co-Op is the most ambitious attempt to leverage the clout of big-name writers into gross deals. Other attempts haven’t fared well. Several years ago, for instance, Columbia Pictures trumpeted a program that promised gross participation to top-tier writers. That program quietly petered out.

The Writers Co-Op could be different. Warner Bros. (or another studio if Warners doesn’t embrace the project) will pay gross to the Co-Op that is comparable to that earned by high-end producers. Since the Co-Op will act as the film’s producer, part of that percentage would be retained by the production company. The rest will go to the scribes, who will be motivated, under this arrangement, to write projects with high commercial upside. They’ll only get paid their usual freight if a film gets made, but they stand to earn a windfall for gross paydays on big hits.

The philosophy and financial formula for the Co-Op was hatched over several years. Discussions really began while Wells was president of the Writers Guild and Kazan and Schulman were members of its executive board, and they had talked a great deal with studio execs and producers on how to improve things for scribes.

Finally, they decided the risk-reward Co-Op formula was the way to go. At least half the participants in the Co-Op roster have been WGA activists, and their motivation goes beyond financial self-interest. They hope the venture can have lasting ramifications for screenwriters and their compensation, showing that scribes deserve a place at the grownup table where creative decisions are made.

“This company gives writers an unprecedented role in the development and production of their films,” said Schulman. “If this model works, we hope others will emulate it.”

While the current ugly lawsuit between author Clive Cussler and Walden Media shows the danger of granting creative controls to wordsmiths, charter Co-Op members were chosen specifically because they are vets who understand that compromise is part of the process. Many have directed films, and the expectation is that Co-Op scribes will not simply try to outlaw rewrites of their scripts, because chances are those films won’t get made and the writers won’t get paid. If a new draft by another writer is going to mean landing a superstar who will get a picture made, the Co-Op participant will be financially motivated because he will take a piece of the film’s haul.

“Our mission is to make better films and to promote a process and a model which is more creative, fulfilling and nurturing than presently exists within the industry,” Kazan said. “We believe in ourselves, in the value of writing and in a spirit of true collaboration.”

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