Wrangling Over ‘Gangland’ Rewrite

Hollywood’s best-paid scripter, Joe Eszterhas, has got Columbia Pictures up in arms over an alleged “rewrite” of his script for “Gangland.”

The script, based on Howard Blum’s book about Mafia topper John Gotti, garnered Eszterhas a whopping $3.4 million payday. The payment included at least one revision.

Columbia execs – including chairman of the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos. Mark Canton and Col president of production Barry Josephson – reportedly are fuming over the paltry rewrite that Eszterhas recently submitted in response to the studio’s script notes.

Sources say the scribe of such pix as “Basic Instinct,” “Jagged Edge” and “Flashdance” turned in a 135-page draft that included just two new pages, and between four and seven pages of small changes.

Eszterhas offered a terse response: “The only comment I have is that we have had discussions about the script.”

But the issue points up an oft-heard debate between writers and studios: What constitutes a “rewrite”?

According to the Writers Guild of America contract, a rewrite means “the writing of significant changes in plot, storyline or inter-relationship of characters in a screenplay.”

This is distinctly different from a “polish,” which means “the writing of changes in dialogue, narration or action, but not including a rewrite.”

Though reports out of Sony Pictures Entertainment have included threats of WGA arbitration, the guild is unlikely to get involved. The union allows studios to file for arbitration with a writer who fails to live up to his end of a contract. But invariably, labor sides with its own.

Even if the guild were to allow arbitration, Sony would not be able to touch the already paid $3.4 million. According to WGA bylaws, Sony is only allowed to seek future earnings that might stem from the project, such as residuals.

Sony’s only recourse then is to take it to court, which insiders say is a near-impossibility.

In any event, Columbia and Sony don’t want the issue to blow up on them; they just want to get the film into production.

Pic, produced by former Sony exec Jon Peters, is still looking for a helmer, with Adrian Lyne heading the list.

Adds one source: “No matter what kind of rewrite Eszterhas turns in now, you know the new director will want changes of his own. So this whole flap becomes moot.”

The problems between Peters and Eszterhas began in fall 1993. Peters gave Eszterhas the majority of his writing fee a full year before he even began writing “Gangland.” In return, Eszterhas offered Peters an early look at his script of the nightclub thriller “Foreplay.” However, Eszterhas imposed one condition: Peters had to read it at the writer’s home. No problem. Both of them live in Malibu Colony.

But Peters, who has a propensity for listening to scripts on tape, refused. That caused a major rift that ended with Peters busting Eszterhas’ coffee table with his fist and bolting from the house, only to come face-to-face with the security fence. Rather than having to go back to ask Eszterhas to unlock it, he scaled the wall to get off the property.

Past histories aside, sources inside Sony say the matter could be resolved early this week.

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