Scribes back in fold

Studios, writers benefit from closer working ties

Fed up with “development hell” and realizing that “step deals” are not working, some studios are stepping back to an earlier era to create good scripts — the era of the inhouse screenwriter.

That habitue is slowly making a comeback at Disney and Warner Bros., and even Fox Broadcasting has begun exploring ways to harness creativity by affiliating with Off Broadway playwrights.

Disney’s 3-year-old inhouse program now has five scribblers who’ve yielded such scripts as “Haunted Mansion.”

Warner Bros.-based Jerry Weintraub Co. began a similar program in January, when tyro scribe Holly Brix, 27, reported for duty on the lot.

Brix — so far the sole WB inhouse scribe — was assigned to work closely with Weintraub prexy Mark Vahradian — who’d last overseen Disney’s inhouse writers program.

Her mandate: Resuscitate “cold case” scripts that had, to put it kindly, lost their narrative thread; to mine Warner Bros.’ trove of 7,000-plus titles for possible remakes (she’s currently at work updating “Nancy Drew”); and of course, to work on her own spec material.

To be included in the development process’s twists and turns is a huge relief, Brix says.

“I once sat in a meeting with executives at another studio who wanted me to write a post-apocalyptic Western,” Brix recounts, “Three months later I came back with my draft, and they said, ‘Oh. Uh … it’s not going to be post-apocalyptic anymore …’ And I was like, ‘Great. So what do you want me to do with this?!’ ”

Such gaffes are unlikely to happen at Warners, or at Disney’s program, where the Mouse’s inhouse writers’ days are highly regimented.

Andrew Gunn, the Disney based producer of “Freaky Friday” and “The Country Bears,” oversees the program for the studio.

“It’s more akin to the old studio system,” he says, “with the studio pretty much knowing what they’re going to be working on all the way through. Execs here have 25 projects each. They don’t have a whole afternoon to sit and figure out a new idea.”

So far, the Disney program has yielded some big writers, and a few producible scripts. David Barenbaum, whose writing sample to enter the Disney program was New Line’s hit “Elf,” would go on to adapt the Disneyland theme park ride “Haunted Mansion” into the 2003 Eddie Murphy-starrer of the same name. It was produced by Gunn.

So, too, with 2002’s “The Country Bears,” another Disney park attraction. Adapted by Mark Perez, a Disney inhouse screenwriter, Gunn and his staff supervised his drafts all the way to production prexy Nina Jacobson’s greenlight.

One of Disney’s five inhouse screenwriters, who agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity, says he’s most pleased with access to studio executives — all the more interesting considering that most screenwriters typically regard suits warily, if not with grave suspicion.

“They’re going to have their impact no matter what,” this Disney scribe says. “It takes a lot of the guesswork out because you get to understand the decisionmaking process on an everyday basis. For some writers, that might drive them crazy. For me, it’s getting to skip a step.”

Meanwhile, television is getting into the act.

Striving to move toward year-round programming, Fox Broadcasting has formed a department dedicated to seeking out new writing talent.

Called the creative writer development division, it has already embarked on its first project, inking with Off Broadway’s Naked Angels Theater Co. for a limited-run showcase of short plays dubbed “Naked TV.” Fox execs will attend one of the performances with the goal of finding source material for pilot scripts (Daily Variety, Feb. 23).

“We recognize the insular nature of the studio,” says Craig Erwich, exec VP of programming at Fox, about the division’s genesis.

He adds: “Some of (the playwrights) will go on staff on Fox shows, some of their ideas we’ll develop, and some are just introductions to their second or third scripts. As much as it’s artistic, it’s also competitive.”

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