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Screenwriters in the Shit 

While Akiva Goldsman fiddles, more accomplished movie scribes burn

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006
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EVERY YEAR, ONE OF THE MAJOR Hollywood talent agencies conducts a running tally of all studio jobs snagged by screenwriters. In 2005, there were 10 percent fewer hires than the year before. So far for 2006, there are 15 percent fewer. That’s a big drop in two years. “These jobs,” said an admittedly depressed literary agent, “just disappeared.” A manager joins the pity party and describes a litany of givebacks by his scribbling clients: free treatments, free rewrites, free polishes and/or free script doctoring — all done with the hollow hope that the studio will give these schmucks with Underwoods a paying gig sooner rather than never. As for those sparse scribes offered real pay for projects, they’re buckling under studio demands by cutting their usual and customary by 30 percent. “It’s the bewildering nature of the business right now that nobody has a quote. It’s a quote-free system,” an agent describes.

In a word, it stinks out there for screenwriters, worse even than the fetid stench of the usual shit flung at them in previous years. These aren’t wannabes, either. These are some of the top names in the biz. “I am fucking terrified,” a major scribe tells me about his year of not getting any work. “I can’t believe my career is ending like this.”

Laments a manager: “I have a giant screenwriter who’s doing everything on spec. Everybody is doing this. They’ve got to get into this mindset.”

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This is the reality of the screenwriting trade right now, the antithesis of the ridiculously rosy picture that the Los Angeles Times paints week after week in its “Scriptland” column. When it debuted in September, I described the feature at my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com as perhaps the single worst idea in the paper’s history, and certainly the single worst execution. Not only does this fatuous fanboy foolishness borrow its vapidity from the Writers Guild magazine and even Ain’t It Cool News (and that Web site’s for Waynes and Garths who haven’t left their parents’ basement since puberty), but it doesn’t bother to tell the truth. It thinks that writers are important in the Hollywood process when the 411 is that the Industry devalues writers much like the Republicans devalue illegal aliens: It’s the weak’s exploitation by the powerful.

Which is why I delighted in giving all the Hollywood moguls indigestion before they’d even taken a bite of their Thanksgiving meal by reporting on November 22 that Akiva Goldsman, who adapted Dan Brown’s worldwide best-seller The Da Vinci Code into a $755.6 mil hit pic, is receiving $4 million to hunt ’n’ peck the sequel for Sony Pictures and Imagine Entertainment.

Not only is that major moola, but this represents a new dollar high for a screenwriter hire — not to be confused with the spec-script sale record, set in 1994, when New Line shelled out $4 mil for Shane Black’s The Long Kiss Goodnight.

In-demand screenwriters these days get between $2 mil and $2.5 mil per project. In Goldsman’s case, the $4 mil isn’t even for an original screenplay, but an adaptation of Brown’s Da Vinci prequel, Angels & Demons, filled with the same Vatican intrigue, and not even a hard book to adapt at that. “This doesn’t strike me as obscene for a motion picture that made almost $800 million and a screenwriter who’s an Oscar winner,” an agent analyzes. “But it is only in the sense that the first movie was so bad that it’s obscene to pay someone to do that to you again.”

And, no, Goldsman (known as Keevee to his childhood friends in Brooklyn) isn’t getting a producer credit, so the pay is for straight scribbling. “That would be a lot for a pure writer’s credit,” one agent gushes. “It puts Akiva in the absolute top of his profession.”

Which resulted in this flaming from a commenter on Defamer: “Wrong, turkey. You could throw untold trillions of dollars at Hackiva (zing!) Goldsman every second for the rest of his life, and it would never, ever, ever make him a talented writer. Leave it to an agent to perfectly elucidate how positively ass-backwards his industry operates.”

On the WriterAction.com forum for WGA members only, the commentators (who must post under their real names, so they’re circumspect) seemed filled with glee. “He’s a fellow screenwriter — good for him!” one hailed. “I think it’s terrific. And about time some more star writers got a real piece of the pie,” applauded another, noting that until star writers start earning the same as star actors, $4 mil shouldn’t be considered major moola but rather “appropriate” moola.

But, privately, the industry is filled with bile at Goldsman’s bullion. Not just out of envy, but more pride; this is the same scribe whose script for Batman & Robin is considered one of the worst of the comic-books-turned-movies genre. Anger also is directed at Sony, which, to put it nicely, historically has been known to open its wallets a little wider for writers than most other studios, and, to put it cruelly, hysterically has been known to overpay for everyone and everything. “Bob Osher talks a tough game, but when Amy Pascal really wants something, she gets it,” one agent explains.

I’m told the reason for the big score is that the studio wanted the 2008-slotted sequel, like, yesterday, not only because the first movie did so well, but also because every major is rushing projects or stockpiling scripts because of the expected studio-WGA confrontations and specter of a strike next year. But several managers and agents are pissed at Sony for doing this deal while simultaneously pleading poverty when it comes to funding what should be the normal development process. “You hear it from them year after year. They say they’re out of money by August and won’t get funded again until April. Bullshit, but they don’t care,” one agent bitterly recalled.

So right now Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind;I, Robot; Cinderella Man) has the best heat, along with fellow high-end screenwriters like Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Horse Whisperer, Ali, Munich), John August (Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale), David Self (Thirteen Days, Road to Perdition), Bill Broyles (Cast Away, Planet of the Apes, Jarhead, Flags of Our Fathers), Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, Rush Hour 2 & 3), David Benioff (Troy), Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Bill Monahan (The Departed), Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action, Hannibal, Gangs of New York, All the King’s Men), and the “two Tees” from Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 & 3, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.

But coming up with a list like this is arduous, since few can agree on who’s getting the bread and who’s just toast. “When was the last time it was said about someone, ‘He’s the new Robert Towne?’?” a screenwriter tells me. “Maybe Paul Haggis is the new Robert Towne. But the Los Angeles Times should stop the bullshit writing about Charlie Kaufman. The man has yet to be involved in a movie that did the opening-night business of Happy Feet.”

Of course, the screenwriters themselves don’t dare go public with their angst: This is an industry where no one’s supposed to see them sweat. But, speaking anonymously, they insist that the problems that exist in their trade right now go beyond the usual explanation that, in this generational business, a cooling career is the inevitable result. “There’s always been a really small group of people who worked and got movies made. But the group feels smaller than ever,” one long-time successful scribe says. “That’s why I’m so depressed. There’s this feeling like the profession has passed us by. That we’d had a chance to be great writers, but didn’t get to practice our craft enough.”

This notion of just having three or four movies per career, and no more, is widespread; so is the feeling that repeaters like Goldsman are rare. “People can complain that Akiva is a terrible writer, and that Da Vinci Code is a piece of shit. But the larger truth is that things broke right for Akiva, and you can’t take that away from him,” one scenarist said. “A huge percentage of this screenwriting business finally just falls to luck.”

As for the giveaways bestowed on ungrateful studios, screenwriters claim they’re forced into forking over freebies. “You’ll get blacklisted if you don’t,” a scribe confessed. “Nobody complains. Because no agency will fight for any writer because they can’t run the risk of having themselves shut out of a studio with only five places to sell to.” And the WGA? “The guild just keeps ignoring it all.” Others are trying the indie route, but that’s more like a nightmare than a dream. Scribes are being pushed by managers and agents to put movies together with a director and a star and try to find financing. “But the reality is that, of all the finished films submitted to Sundance, maybe four got distribution deals. And, in the process, you’ve watched three years of your life get away as you fucking try to get a yes from Andy Garcia,” a screenwriter complains.

Most of the successful screenwriters came to Hollywood in their 20s, married and had kids in their 30s, and made movies and money in their 40s. Now, aged 50 and above, they’re on what’s commonly referred to as the “downward glide — where you sell the house, move somewhere else, and land gently. Because your career has come to its own end,” one screenwriter describes. “Akiva is 44 now. Wait, and it’ll happen to him too.”

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