Scribe strife stirs late scramble to lock gigs

As Hollywood waits to see if there will be a strike this week, studios scrambled to lock in as many summer tentpoles, prestigious award-season prospects and highly anticipated sequels as they could.

Scribes canceled all non-essential meetings to finish drafts and polishes by an Oct. 31 deadline, delivering rewrites page by page in certain cases. Producers gave finished scripts a final once-over for camera readiness, and production execs weighed greenlight decisions as talent hopped on or off projects.

In some instances, the dealmaking caused chain reactions.

Director Tony Scott was seeking a good villain to match up with Denzel Washington in the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123.” It looked like Nicolas Cage would take the role but instead he committed to two pictures: “The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky, and “The Vanished,” directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Scott also sought Mark Wahlberg, but he became unavailable when he took Ryan Gosling’s place on “The Lovely Bones.” Gosling left that project over creative differences with Peter Jackson. The “Pelham” role is likely to go to John Travolta.

Plenty of other projects also were in flux.

  • Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were eyeing “The Wolf of Wall Street” for Warner Bros., but the project ran into trouble when the studio balked over sharing the pic with Paramount, where the director has an overall deal. Instead, Scorsese and DiCaprio chose to do “Shutter Island” for Phoenix Pictures. The project also isn’t as complicated a production; the thriller takes place in a psychiatric prison on a remote island.

  • Paramount brass will decide whether to go forward with “G.I. Joe” for a summer 2009 release based on a rewrite of the project that Stuart Beattie was completing over the past weekend.

  • Scribes Jamie Vanderbilt and Scott Silver were whipping into shape a “Wolverine” spinoff that Fox has slotted for a May 2009 release.

  • Eric Roth was rewriting “Shantaram,” a panoramic epic directed by Mira Nair and starring Johnny Depp, in an effort to trim the budget down to a level Warner Bros. can live with.

  • Although Sony has been prepping the “Da Vinci Code” sequel for some time, Akiva Goldsman was working on “Angels & Demons” through the weekend so the film can make a Dec. 19, 2008, release date.

  • Joe Carnahan was trying to recast “White Jazz” after George Clooney dropped out, following a motorcycle accident that cut into his post-production schedule for “Leatherheads” and his obligations in completing the Coen brothers film “Burn After Reading.”

There were other big question marks, including a new “Terminator” pic at Warner Bros. and “Nottingham,” a reimagining of the Robin Hood legend direct by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe.

It looked doubtful that a “Transformers” sequel could be whipped into shape in time. DreamWorks and Paramount want the sequel for a June 26, 2009, release date, but the studio just hired Ehren Kruger to team with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to pen the next chapter.

New Line co-topper Michael Lynne says, “All the companies that are in the business of financing films are trying to finance as many films as they can rationally make in that time frame — and then they’ll deal with the strike after that.”

Hollywood has been bracing for a work stoppage for months, but was caught offguard when the WGA called for a strike authorization vote in October. Until then, many believed they would have more time to hammer out script issues, given the guild’s penchant for extending contract deadlines.

“It’s like you were preparing for a hurricane in June, and you battened down the hatches and suddenly the WGA blew your roof off,” says one exec who has two big-ticket pics on the bubble.

“For me, every conversation seems to be fraught with three times as much tension as usual,” says producer David T. Friendly, who’s prepping “Soul Men” for Dimension. “Writers are nervous, agents are nervous, studios are nervous and producers are nervous. It’s one giant anxiety chain.”

If there is a strike, production will continue, but scribes will be banned from writing for those projects. So while studios show a penchant for making story changes right up to the last minute, they won’t have scribes to make polishes and rewrites. Comedies in particular depend on writers for script punch-ups during production.

“Everybody is jamming their scripts in this weekend,” said one senior studio executive of the Oct. 26-28 scramble. “Studios want to see if the obvious movies are ready, and get a glimmer of what can go into production after this is over. …We’ve got writers turning in scripts we don’t have time to look at, because they want to get paid.”

Writers’ reps fret that studios may invoke force majeure clauses to invalidate all the rich writer deals of the past few months — and that producers might lose their deals as well.

While writers are feeling the pressure to finish, studio execs are “clawing just to be OK,” says one senior exec.

“Several pictures will likely fall apart in the last few days, and a slew of actors will shake free and be available,” the exec says. “And then do we add a project to suit them? You don’t want to be so desperate that you make a movie that isn’t ready. History has proven that is the biggest mistake you can make.”

Friendly also remembers the previous strike, in 1988, as being an intense period. But the former journo, who had just moved to Imagine as an exec, managed to snag a major movie out of the process, acquiring the “Backdraft” script from Raffaella DeLaurentiis’ shingle and setting it up at Imagine, where it was directed by Ron Howard.

“Good things sometimes come out of bad circumstances,” says Friendly.

Tatiana Siegel contributed to this report.

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