Writing Is Fighting

Fighting With the Mann

The most lip-splitting heavyweight battle to grace Hollywood in recent memory was by no means in the upcoming film Ali. It was the battle of wills for credit on the biopic. Credits are always a touchy subject because money is dictated by credit. If you’re designated onscreen screenplay credit, it means you partake in sweet apple pies like video distribution or Internet rights that can translate into hundreds of thousands if not millions. If you wrote the script, but didn‘t get full onscreen credit, you might have been paid, but you’re out of luck for the juicy ancillary streams. And, lest we forget, egos play a paramount role.

Director Michael Mann likes to put his stamp on films he directs, and he usually demands writing credit if he believes he‘s worthy. For Ali, he engaged in an unheralded battle royal for credit with writers Chris Wilkinson and Steven Rivele, who penned the original 195-page draft. Mann and Eric Roth, who co-wrote The Insider with him, argued before a Writers Guild of America (WGA) arbitration committee that they had so drastically renovated the Wilkinson-Rivele dialogue that they deserved full credit. Wilkinson and Rivele were perturbed. They had developed the script over several years and created a lasting relationship with Muhammad Ali, whom they met on one of their fact-finding missions to his home in Michigan.

”The best part of the job was meeting the champ,“ says Wilkinson, with starry-eyed admiration. ”Not only is he still there, but he has this charisma.“ They also did an enormous amount of research into Ali and his legacy, and worked to mold the role around Will Smith, who jumped onboard after reading their first draft. Mann came to the project some two years after it had been discussed for Oliver Stone and Barry Sonnenfeld. When he boarded, Mann had specific demands, not the least of which was personally writing his own draft. Mann was not available for comment.

”He wanted to slant it more in the direction of Ali as a social and political phenomenon,“ says Wilkinson. ”Michael wanted a more hard-nosed, pragmatic view of the role Ali played in the ’70s. The fundamental change was a change in tone from a portrayal of Ali as a spiritual character to a more narrow and pragmatic view as a sociological and political phenom.“

Mann signed on, brought in Roth, then said sayonara to Rivele and Wilkinson, whom, ironically, the director had approached earlier about writing The Insider. Says Rivele, ”We basically agreed on a game plan for how the film could be produced, and basically we didn‘t hear from him again.“ Credit notwithstanding, the two writers have not become Mann haters. They say working with the director and writing about Ali was incredible. That may be because, after four grueling months, the WGA ruled in their favor. Though they’re sharing credit with Mann and Roth, Wilkinson and Rivele are in first position.

Oh, To Be Lord of the Rings

New Line Cinema executives are turning cartwheels over the projected performance of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Not only does the first installment look poised to pay off at the box office, it has already re-established New Line as a formidable producer of high-end fare. Less than a year ago, owner AOL Time Warner was ready to pull the plug on the little indie that could. Time Warner chairman Jerry Levin felt it was bloated after clunkers like Little Nicky and Town and Country. AOL TW slashed New Line salaries and forced the company to lay off more than 10 percent of its staff. Corporate wonks at AOL TW discussed retaining the New Line name, but dissolving its distribution and marketing divisions and putting the studio‘s product through the Warner Bros. pipeline.

Now, AOL TW chairman Richard Parsons is whistling a different tune. Between the $200 million--plus perform-ance of Rush Hour 2 and the hype about The Lord of the Rings, Parsons is no longer demanding that New Line shut down, but is maintaining the importance of having labels separate from Warner Bros. To understand this unexpected switch, follow the money: Insiders say that after the tax incentives of shooting in New Zealand, the company’s lucrative foreign deals, and merchandising deals with Burger King and JV, among others, New Line‘s actual cost amounts to just $25 million per picture. If the films enjoy the box-office bonanza that the tracking indicates, all three will become hits over the next three Christmases, and New Line will re-forge its identity as a mini-major.

Whither USA Films?

The VivendiUniversal deal to buy out Barry Diller’s USA Studios re-ignites the question of what Diller wants to do with USA Films. The tiny film division had been on the verge of extinction under chairman Scott Greenstein until it ran into some much-needed Traffic. A year and a $100 million--plus gross later, USA was the belle of the indie ball; it recently cut a deal with Steven Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, David Fincher and Alexander Payne to direct three films a year over five years. The pressing problem now for Universal will be how to handle specialty independent films -- not that Diller or Universal executives are giving it much worry. Universal has never had much interest in that area, which was clear when it owned USA‘s precursor, October Films. But the studio has since created Universal Focus, which distributed Billy Elliott among others. One of these divisions will have to go.

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