In a highly unusual move for a major, 20th Century Fox aims to entice a dozen top screenwriters to bring original spec scripts to the studio in exchange for gross participation if the pics get made.
The writers, who’ll take small upfront payments and will get only their usual fees on films that go into production, will also be guaranteed input as producers and protection from being rewritten without their permission. Fox production co-presidents Emma Watts and Alex Young are spearheading the effort.
Fox’s push centers around a collective scribe venture dubbed Writing Partners, which is comprised of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Shrek”); Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”); John August (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”); Stuart Beattie (“Collateral”); Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (“3:10 to Yuma”); Tim Herlihy (“The Wedding Singer”); Simon Kinberg (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “X-Men: The Last Stand”); Craig Mazin (“Scary Movie 3” and “4”); and Marianne & Cormac Wibberley (“National Treasure” and its sequel).
Fox’s deal requires that each scribe or team generate at least one spec within four years.
Writing Partners marks the third time this year that a group of scribblers have banded together in an effort to gain more say in the creative process, but Writing Partners breaks ground as the first to align with a major studio and the first to spell out that the scribes will receive gross participation.
Studios rarely offer such largess to writers. A similar program by Columbia Pictures hatched several years ago yielded only a handful of paydays. If Fox has ever paid gross to a writer before, it has been only to someone along the lines of James Cameron, who also produces and directs his films for the studio.
On the surface, it’s surprising that Fox would be the studio to embrace the Writing Partners deal given Fox’s reputation for hard-nosed fiscal discipline. But timing is everything. Watts and Young pushed the unusual initiative with the expectation that the marketplace for feature material is in for some major upheaval in the months ahead.
Studios and prominent writers have been busy trying to firm up films for 2008 and 2009 studio slates that will have to complete production to avoid a collision with a possible Hollywood work stoppage next summer. Once that pre-strike crunch is over, writing jobs are expected to be in short supply whether or not a strike occurs. Agents say they will encourage their scribe clients to use the downtime to focus on originals that can be auctioned once the business kicks back into gear and studios are hungry for new projects.
While this summer has seen strong box office, hits have consisted largely of sequels and branded fare, with original properties in short supply. Watts and Young may put their studio in position to restock its development arsenal with scripts by top-flight writers, without having to deplete their development budget. “These are the creators of some of the freshest and most commercial movies of the last several years,” said Young. “Not only do we get access to a wealth of original material that could become our next great franchises, but this ushers in a new era of collaboration with writers.”
Watts said: “Anyone would be thrilled to be working with one of these top screenwriters, but to be entering into a long-term creative partnership for original screenplays with all of them represents a groundbreaking opportunity for Fox.”
As with the other scribe collectives that have popped up this year, the members of Writing Partners are seeking to gain more clout for screenwriters in the creative process.
First venture to emerge this year was the Writers Co-Op (Daily Variety, March 19), which took root under John Wells’ producing deal at Warner Bros. Wells enlisted 19 scribes, including Scott Frank, David Benioff, Richard LaGravanese, Ed Solomon, Robin Swicord and Nick Kazan. Next up was 1.3.9, a venture that teams 12 writers that include Christopher McQuarrie, John Lee Hancock and John Ridley (Daily Variety, May 23) and seeks to turn the passion projects of big stars into scripts that writers will own and produce. The goal is to give the scribes leverage when they sell the star-attached films to studios.
Writing Partners will use a formula comparable to the one that Wells and his former fellow WGA board members Kazan and Tom Schulman developed for the Writers Co-Op.
When Writing Partners members bring their specs to Fox, the studio will pay the comparatively small fee of $300,000 to get going, and then the studio will pony up only the writer’s usual lucrative fee when the project is going to get made. At that point, the scribes also become gross players and producers. Gross compensation will be in the neighborhood of 2.5%.
While Fox can’t replace a writer without his or her permission, the scribe’s gross participation offers both the incentive to generate specs with commercial potential and also to be flexible if a major star wants a polish by a favored writer before committing. If a standoff does occur, there are provisions in the deal that protect Fox but also allow the writer to take back the script.
“This was mostly about setting precedent for writers and giving them the creative control and feeling of authorship that we feel writers deserve but never get,” Kinberg said. “Our collective box office is over $10 billion, which is more than Spielberg has achieved as director, or Tom Cruise has done as an actor. But we don’t have nearly the same creative controls. Fox is the right place for this deal. I’ve made four films there, and they don’t treat writers as disposable.”
Mazin and Elliott, who served on the WGA board, hatched the idea over the course of a series of conversations with August and several others. UTA, CAA and attorney Ken Richman were the prime movers in shaping the deal with the studio.
“We were looking for a studio to work with us as true filmmaking partners,” Mazin said. “Fox not only smashed through the glass ceiling of first-dollar gross for writers, but they offered us an incredible package of creative rights as well. They’ve invested an enormous amount of faith in our ability to deliver original movies with mass appeal, and we intend to deliver.”
August said: “There is no organizational structure here, no production company or profit-sharing, just nine writers who’ve made the same deal at the same studio. If there is a frustration with how development works right now, it would be how hard it is for A-list writers to write original material. Development budgets are limited, and studios want to spend money on movies they think they’re going to make, which tend to be adaptations and sequels. They hire writers like us for those jobs, rather than to write original scripts. Aside from bigger backend, there is a potential here to encourage better movies.”