Writers get big bucks for touch-ups

Agents take advantage of pre-strike jitters

As strike fears mount and studios hustle movies into production, the town’s high-profile acting talent is seeing a bonanza of multiple paydays.

Less noticed amid the stockpiling frenzy, though, is the lucrative opportunity for the top tier of screenwriters — particularly those specializing in one-week “body and fender” work — to punch up scripts.

With studios and producers scrambling to get films into production ahead of a possible summer strike by SAG, agents are finding it much easier to get writer clients their full quotes — even as much as $300,000 for a week.

The most prevalent punch-up work, known as “weeklies,” comes from two sources: big-budget films, where story and dialogue initially may have been sacrificed for spectacle, and comedies. In the latter case, a writer is often hired for the particular purpose of creating a bit that’s funny enough to merit inclusion in the trailer.

“The studios are rushing to beat a deadline, which does not lead to tremendously good development,” says one tenpercenter. “So when they’re down to two weeks out from production and the script’s not ready, that’s when an agent has maximum leverage. Spending a couple hundred thousand dollars to save a script is nothing compared with having to delay a film.”

Though the work’s usually uncredited, it’s lucrative enough to attract prominent players such as Robert Towne, Akiva Goldsman, Ed Solomon, Don Payne, Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. Their work encompasses anything from improving dialogue, salvaging the third act and tweaking structure to amplifying a character to attract a specific actor, or inserting jokes to make a script funnier.

Producers and directors of comedies will also often turn to the technique called “the roundtable,” in which up to 10 writers spend an afternoon together going over a script and looking for new laughs. The writers are often friends of the director or producer; per-writer fee is usually $5,000.

“If you have a structural problem with the script, you’d probably go with a ‘weekly,’ but if you just need more jokes, you go with a ’roundtable,’ ” says another agent.

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