Those velociraptors in the sequel to “Jurassic Park” aren’t the only once-extinct creatures roaming studio lots these days. Studio screenwriters, a fixture during Hollywood’s Golden Age, also seem to be making a comeback.
A growing number of studios and production companies are inking deals with seasoned scribes in order to lock in their services for original scripts and rewrites.
These are not the ill-paid, ink-stained wretches of yesteryear, however. Unlike the studio hacks immortalized in the movie “Sunset Boulevard,” today’s inhouse writers usually enjoy six- or even seven-figure paydays plus production bonuses and perks such as office suites, cell phones and health club privileges.
DreamWorks in particular has made a point of offering writers lucrative contracts, which can include directing and producing components as well as time off to work on outside projects and gross participation in all films produced by the fledgling studio.
But while writer deals can offer studios easy access to creative talent and provide scribes a steady gig, not everyone is thrilled with the trend.
Many screenwriters are uncomfortable with the idea of being beholden to a single company, especially given the notoriously ephemeral nature of studio administrations. And literary agents, who like to play the field in order to generate higher rates for their top clients, often see the deals as an impediment.
“If a writer is really hot, the last thing you would want to do is stick them with one client,” one lit agent said.
This despite the fact that annual guarantees can range from $250,000 for a freshman writer up to several million for a veteran with a killer track record, witness the six-picture, $8 million deal “Rainman” scribe Ron Bass recently inked at TriStar Pictures.
So far, despite the richness of its deals, the DreamWorks roster includes only three contract writers: Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio of “Aladdin” fame and first-timer Michael Clancy.
“To entice a writer to give you any amount of exclusivity is a very expensive proposition, given what’s happened to writers’ prices in the past few years,” DreamWorks feature production head Walter Parkes said.
But scripter Mark Haskell Smith, who penned the production draft of Columbia’s upcoming “Anaconda,” isn’t griping about his first-look deal with that studio, which includes a spacious office on the Sony Pictures lot.
“I get market value for my services and I have really good relationships with all the execs and many of the producers,” said Smith, who wrote the spec script “Playing God” on a laptop in a tiny corner of his bedroom. “If executives get ideas, sometimes they’ll call me up — or I’ll just run into them on the lot.”
While Smith’s deal gives him no minimum guarantee and is theoretically nonexclusive, in practice he said Co-lumbia gives him all the work he can handle. “As soon as I’m done with one project, I’ve got five or six producers with good projects who are waiting for me to say yes or no,” he said.
Smith is working on an adaptation of Howard Blum’s nonfiction mob treatise “Gangland.”
From the studio point of view, the deal simplifies the process of locating a script doctor for quick-hit two- or three-week rewrites.
Rewriters in demand
“Finding a specific writer to punch up a script can take days if not weeks,” said Columbia senior VP Kevin Jones, who brought Smith into the studio. “This way I can dial four digits and know that the writer is going to pick up the phone and give me an answer.”
That answer isn’t always yes, however. Smith, like most other writers with housekeeping deals, can turn down projects he doesn’t cotton to, or ones he thinks are unlikely to get made.
“It’s not like he bends over backward to do everything we bring to him,” Jones pointed out. “But his instinct is to help.”
Writing partners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have yet to sign an overall deal, however. “We’ve never understood the reasons for them,” Alexander said.
That may be because the pair, whose credits include Columbia’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and Disney’s “That Darn Cat” remake, generally can negotiate for an office on the lot as part of their deal for doing a single picture.
Getting the trades for free
“Overall deals are about having an office, a secretary, and getting sodas and the trades for free,” Alexander figures. “We answer our own phones, and buy our own sodas and trades.”
“One would have to feel extraordinarily comfortable with the studio executives to sign an overall deal,” Karaszewski added. “And even if you do, there’s so much volatility. If we’d made an overall deal at Columbia 12 months ago, we’d feel pretty silly right now.”
Besides, the writers say, their interest is in penning original scripts, not turning into full-time script doctors. Still, the team recently did lend a hand on Columbia’s Alicia Silverstone vehicle “Excess Baggage,” as did Smith.
“It’s very tricky, in terms of whether writers should or shouldn’t go sign a studio deal,” said Dan Aloni, co-head of United Talent Agency’s motion picture literary department. “It’s really client specific.”
UTA clients Steve Bloom and “Lion King” co-scripter Jonathan Roberts have an exclusive deal with Disney; and Brian Helgeland, whose “Conspiracy Theory” is shooting with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, has a multipicture deal at Warner Bros.
Writers’ deals often include non-financial enticements, such as a chance to direct or produce. The three-picture deal Scott Rosenberg (“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” “Beautiful Girls”) signed with Mi-ramax included the publishing of his novel by Disney subsidiary Hyperion and the chance to helm a film, although, so far, Rosenberg said he’s been too busy writing to direct.
On the downside, Rosenberg’s nonexclusive deal gives Miramax first look and right of last refusal on his original material. Those terms can make it difficult to circulate a project that Miramax has passed on, the scribe said.
“The key to an overall deal is you have to do it with people you want to be in bed with,” Rosenberg said from his Miramax-provided cell phone.
Still, the writer, who penned Buena Vista’s actioner “Con Air” and now is at work on projects for a number of other studios, said he hasn’t discussed renewing his deal with Miramax. “Sometimes it gets to the point where, to be free and clear of any entanglements might be a good thing.”
Last month, Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope made Kirk Ellis its first inhouse scripter. The two-year deal calls for the former Moving Pictures editor to write several screenplays based on literary properties owned by Zoetrope, including stories from the company’s new short fiction magazine.
Coppola explained that the idea is to find an alternative to what he describes as the “shotgun” approach to development used by the majors.
“We’re a small company without the resources of a Warner Bros. or a Paramount that can bid for and develop 100 projects in order to get one,” said the director, currently shooting Par’s “The Rainmaker” in Memphis.
Ellis’ deal, which includes pay bumps at different phases of development and production, is considerably richer than the one Coppola labored under as a staff writer at 7 Arts in the early 1960s.
“We got $500 a week and a nice Christmas present,” Coppola recalled. “We were very appreciative of those jobs. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn to write on deadline and develop one’s confidence.”
And there’s something to be said for having a studio office to get up and go to everyday, some scribes admit.
“It makes you feel like you’re part of the film business,” Columbia’s Smith said. “Whereas when you’re sitting at home, you feel like, ‘Maybe it’s time to change out of my pajamas.’ ”