of Fortune

For decades studio executives
have searched for a fool-proof money- making formula, and they’ve
tried everything from allowing directorial carte blanche to financing
big-budget sequels to issuing virtual blank checks for superstar
talent. Now it seems they believe success might just start with
the written word, and they’re taking steps to anoint die screenwriter
as savior.

Indicative of this trend
is a groundbreaking deal creating a unique partnership between
Sony Pictures Entertainment and a group of more than 30 of Hollywood’s
top writers. The deal, announced in February, guarantees a percentage
of profits for the writer and scripts for the studio, and it
may also insure that the writer finally gets a voice in the creative

Hollywood has long been fond
of the image of the major studio as a big circus tent supported
by a few strategically placed poles: the blockbusters and franchise
films that pay all the bills, from the air conditioning in the
bungalows to the security guard’s salary to the CEO’s bonus.
If that metaphor is true, then, who’s inside the tent? The production
heads must be the ring- masters, diverting our attention from
one stage to the next. The actors are the ones swinging on the
trapeze and swallowing fire. The directors are, it could be argued,
the clowns, entertaining us with wheezing, recycled gags. And
the elephants are certainly the films themselves, lumbering around
endlessly in a circle. So where does that leave the writers?
Do they feed the elephants, or are they the ones following behind
with the shovels? Some writers would say they perform both tasks.
But the much-publicized Sony deal indicates that writers are
finally getting some of the respect they’ve long been due. Someday
they might even get to ride those elephants.

The Prolific Ron Bass

Ron Bass is the Joyce Carol
Oates of screenwriting. After selling the nights to his
third novel 16 years ago with himself attached as writer,
he left a successful law business with seven movie deals
already in the works. Since then, he has won an Oscar (along
with Barry Morrow) for Rainman, and has written,
among others, the scripts for Waiting to Exhale, Men
a Man Loves a Woman) Gardens of Stone, Sleeping With the
Enemy, Black Widow) Dangerous Minds,
The Joy Luck
Club, Mat Dreams May Come, Stepmom, How Stella Got Her
Groove Back, Entrapment, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Diving
Bell and the Butterfly,
and The Shipping News. He
currently has 10 to 12 projects in, as the saying goes, "various
stages of development," including a TV movie starring
Andy Garcia and a comedy he’s writing with Will Smith.

He begins writing every
morning between 3 and 4 am, and works 14-hour days, 7 days
a week. In addition to writing new scripts, rewriting others,
and adapting novels, he produces as well, filling his days
with meetings, screenings, and post-production sessions.
His company is called, of course, Predawn Productions,
consisting of himself and seven others.

And he does it all with
a No.2 pencil and a notebook because, he says, "When
you correct on a computer, it’s gone."

Bass, who is married with
two daughters (one a teenager, the other in college) taught  himself
to read at age three, when he began to suffer from a mysterious
illness that confined him to bed for several years. He
wrote short stories and completed a novel by the time he
was 17. When he showed it to a high school teacher he had
a crush on, she said he’d never be able to sell it. He
burned it. "I didn’t write another word for 17 years," he

He considered careers in
philosophy and politics (he interned in Washington during
the Kennedy administration) , before going to law school
at Harvard and eventually becoming a movie lawyer.

"But I always thought
it would be the coolest thing to be a Faulkner or a Dostoevsky," he
says. So he reworked the novel he destroyed, published
it, and wrote two more before he decided he liked the quicker
pace of screenplays.

Bass is now in the first
year of an exclusive three-year writing and producing deal
with Sony, which includes the adaptation of Memoirs
of a Geisha,
to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Bass
has discovered that adaptations of serious commercial fiction
is the kind of work he loves the best.

"I have a good eye
for how to tell the same story in a different medium," he
says. "In print, it’s about what happens within people.
In film, it’s what happens between people." MM

The historic deal, announced
in February, gives screenwriters two percent of die gross profits
of the pictures they write. Under the agreement the studio will
recoup its negative, P&A, and certain miscellaneous costs,
but writers get paid before distribution fees are deducted and
other gross participants grab their cut. The actors and director
still get their huge percentages (sometimes as high as 40 percent
for talent), but the writer now gets a slice before the pie is
eaten up, and they get a financial reward for writing the kind
of script that makes money. "If you’ve written a really
good script you attract a really good director and a really good
star," says screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of
Fortune, Fallen),
"but with all of their accounting
procedures you never go into the profits. Under this deal, none
of those onerous provisions kick in. As a writer, you can experience

Kazan was part of a high-profile
quintet of Hollywood scribes who began working on the deal in
informal, closed-door meetings last summer. Frank Pierson (Dog
Day Afternoon),
Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), Phil
Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams), Ron Bass (Stepmom), and
Kazan, along with attorney Alan Wertheimer, presented the deal
to Columbia- TriStar (owned by Sony), and the studio, in Bass’s
words, ‘jumped at the chance."

More than 30 writers now
qualify for the deal, which states that a writer must have been
paid at least $750,000 for a feature script, $1 mil- lion for
a spec script, or been nominated for a Writer’s Guild of America
(WGA) or Academy Award. By accepting, the writer agrees to write
at least one script for Sony over the next four years. The deal
remains open for seven years to any writer who meets these standards.
Kazan says the new contract is not about establishing a millionaire’s
club. "What writers need most is respect, and that means
being included in the process. When the writer says that something
doesn’t work, the possibility should be considered that the writer
knows what he’s talking about."

Bass believes he and his
fellow honor roll writers are paving the way for a new perception
of the writer’s role on the part of the studios and the public. "When
glass ceilings are broken and writers are seen as partners of
directors, actors and studios and part of the core creative team
responsible for a movie’s success-and they participate in the
financial rewards of that success-it’s an indication of their

Robin Schorr, senior VP of
production at Trimark Pictures, one of the few truly independent "mini-majors" out
there, applauds the new deal.

"I think it’s fantastic.
If anyone deserves a bigger piece of the action, it’s the writer.
They’re the engine of the business:’ But Schorr, who worked for
uber-producer Kathleen Kennedy (E. 1′) for 10 years and
finally left the mainstream side of the business because she
wanted to see better films get made, also believes the trick-
le-down effect of the deal will be glacial.

"The hoops you have
to jump through are tremendous:’ says Meg Richman, a is-year
screenwriting vet who has a solid reputation in Hollywood,
but still finds herself in pitch meetings being forced to create
the entire movie on the spot, outlining the plot and in1agining
characters, only to have her ideas dismissed. "The authorial
vision is not respected:’ Richman wrote and directed her independently
financed feature, Under Heaven, in 1997. Five years ago
she wrote a script based on Somerset Maughanl’s Up at the
which is now being made into a movie starring Sean
Penn, although her script was completely rewritten by the director’s

She and her fellow writers
believe that economics alone won’t improve scripts. But they
do believe that giving the writer a greater voice will help change
the way films are made. "What’s more likely to have a positive
effect on scripts:’ says Bass, "is the tonal change in the
relationship change between writers and studios:’ Bass, it can
be argued, is one of the few top- flight screenwriters who already
have some control over the final product. He and Amy Tan adapted
her novel, The Joy Luck Club, and he decided with that
film to become a producer as well. "Nobody does their best
work when they feel dictated to; when they fell their creative
opinion is not respected.”

The corruption of a writer’s
vision begins when producers, directors, actors and other writers
rework, rewrite, and improvise the heart out of an original script,
and then executives pre-test the fi1m to ensure they can attract
the widest audience possible. By the time a fi1m finally opens,
a writer’s words and rhythms are usually pasteurized.

"A lot of writing is
affected by the process:’ says Daniel Pyne (Pacific Heights,
White Sands),
who two years ago sold a spec script for $1.5
million, only to watch it tumble into the gulag of turnaround. "If
this Sony deal can mitigate the process that would be helpful." In
his book, Adventures of the Screen Trade (1983), William
Goldman (All The Presidents Men), wrote that once a writer
hands over the screenplay he becomes "this weird thing,
some vestigial lump, like a baby born with a tail." A writer
lives with a script from the day he’s hired to the day it must
be delivered six months to a year later. It’s like handing over
a child to an adopting family.

Too often the new parents
turn out to be a band of miscreants.

"It’s pretty obvious
that most films are terrible;’ says Kazan, though both he and
Bass are reluctant to believe that it’s the writer’s fault. They
believe it has more to do with "product tampering."

"No one goes to the
costumer and says, ‘You know what, I know you made a good costume
here but I’m just going to cut off the sleeves. ‘Why should it
be different with the writer?" Kazan tells of being on the
set when a writer changes one line of dialogue he’s written and
it doesn’t make a difference. But then the actor changes another
line and the whole meaning of the scene changes. Soon a script’s
structure, its very backbone, is broken. Kazan, who subscribes
to what he calls the "haughteur" theory of film- making,
believes it’s often a director’s hubris, which abuses good writing.

It’s a schizophrenic business;’
says Pyne. "The studios are in the commerce business and
we’re in the art business. When they cross we can support ourselves.
When they don’t, we can’t." Pyne wrote six feature scripts
before he figured he had one good enough to send out. He feels
that the quality of writing in Hollywood is as good now as it’s
ever been, that it’s ! die marketplace-that undiscerning Godzilla
of greed-that destroys good intentions. "A lot of people
are depressed and discouraged or have become very cynical about
the state of movies, even studio people," says Pyne. "lt’s
like a monster that no one person can control. As a group, we’re
failing to deliver good movies. “Good movies take chances. They
focus on relationships, they follow a single character’s point
of view, they tackle idiosyncratic subject matter, they are intelligent
and have a unique voice and they sometimes don’t end happily.
They are not programmed toward a particular actor’s set of tics
or a director’s flourishes. They don’t appeal to broad, homogenized
demographic groups and therefore don’t bring in the kind of money
to support the gargantuan infrastructures of the movie studios.
Hollywood is like any other business: the studios are in it for
the money, and they make that money on megahits. They simply
would not survive if they made films only for niche markets.
Imagine how long Boeing would last if they started making nothing
but hang gliders. As Bass puts it,"1 sometimes wonder about
people who rail against Hollywood not being more courageous…as
if the studios owe it to the rest of us to lose money so we’ll
get to see a really cool movie." He says that for every
courageous film Hollywood makes money on, there are a dozen more
brave movies that failed at the box office.

Some would say that Bass
is part of the problem, given the oversimplified conflicts in
films like Stepmom, Waiting to Exhale, and My Best
Friend Wedding,
but he does point out that he is writing
about people, not explosions. And he offers his literary adaptations
of difficult material as proof of his desire to get better films
made. In the last year he’s tackled the time- shifting narrative
of Snow Falling on Cedars; the interior imaginings of
the paralyzed narrator of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; and
the richly textured oddities of The Shipping News. But
he also believes that the market knows what it wants. "1
think that if we kept all the action adventure movies and special
effects movies and slasher movies and dumb bathroom humor movies
out of the theaters; if instead we put in only what some people
feel is high-quality, classy entertainment-well, 1 don’t think
that’s America and 1 don’t think it works."

Kazan remembers the time
in the ’60s and 70s when the studios were making’ serious, interesting
films and there was an audience for them. Now, though, studios
want that enormous hit, instead of several smaller hits that
each make a little money. "You see somebody win a $50 million
jackpot and you think, "Why am I playing the 25-cent slots?"

My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)

Unfortunately, “sure-thing” mentality
is now mainstreaming the indie film movement as well, "In
the past, the two prime enemies of indies were Hollywood’s mainstream,
innocuous fare and television’s simple, broad content;’ wrote
Emanuel Levy, film critic for Daily Variety and professor
of film at Arizona State University, in his analysis of the current
crop of movies at Sundance this year. He pointed out the dearth
of provocative, original films, and the abundance of bland, slick
crowd-pleasers, such as Happy, Texas and Tumbleweeds.
Levy, whose book Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American
Independent Film
will be published in August by NYU Press,
believes that in 1998 "there was a narrowing of the gap
between Hollywood and independent cinema:’ not only in riskier
big-budget films like Out of Sight, A Simple Plan, and Bulworth, but
also because the production of indies is now firmly in the not-
so-independently owned hands of boutique studios like October,
Miramax, Fine Line, and Fox Searchlight. Like Robin Shorr, Levy
believes the Sony deal will motivate all writers to write better,
but he also shares her concern that economics are threatening
the experimental risks that novice writer-directors need to take
to keep the art of fi1m vital and visionary. Schorr, who admits
she "gets discouraged when terrible movies are successful:’
feels that every time a Fully Monty or Four Weddings
and a Funeral
breaks box-office records, dIe specialty studios
will only want to make more of those kinds of films. Say all
the nice things you want about Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love, but
it certainly doesn’t look like Pi, or feel like Happiness, or
sound like Celebration.

"Somebody figured out
if you, make a certain kind of fi1m you’ll make a certain amount
of money:’ says Dan Pyne, when describing the indie world’s trend
toward bland dating comedies and fluffy relationship movies,
films that Richman and Schorr feel lack intensity and a sense
of high stakes. Both are tired of the teenage crook-coming-of-age
fi1m, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of the scripts pitched
to Schorr. "I pass on them over the phone:’ she says wearily.
Schorr produced Richman’s debut, Under Heaven, and says
that even though she looks for edgy material with a unique point
of view, a script must also have foreign pre-sale value and elements
that are marketable in the U.S. Comedies are more successful
than dramas, and any- thing dark doesn’t play well outside of
New York or L.A..So will the writers save Hollywood? Even though
every movie begins with a writer’s vision, the director and the
stars are still considered the most important people on a fi1m.
And the price paid for a script is still a small percentage of
a film’s overall budget. The WGA minimum for a script on a picture
with a budget under $2.5 million is just under $30,000; the minimum
script price for a film with a higher budget than that starts
at $60,000. Richman was paid $150,000 for three drafts of a script
she wrote for Fox Searchlight, even though she only had to write
one of them. Pyne’s $1.5 million for his turn- around script, Blameless, was
against another $500,000 once the fi1m went into production.
And Bass, when he was a freelance writer, commanded in the range
of $2 million per script, with a $750,000 production bonus. But
there is a perception within the industry that if a studio buys
a script for $2 mil- lion, they have to spend $50 million on
the movie, rather than, say, $10 mil- lion. This leaves some
writers wondering why their words aren’t worth just as much as
the salary of the actor who has to say them.

But writers agree that money
can’t buy good writing. Gross points alone won’t completely reverse
old trends, and the lowest common denominator won’t demand better
movies. Better movies, if they are to come, will start with the
writer. "Writers must write things they believe in:’ comments
Schorr."lt’s a terrible mistake to emulate something else
that’s been successful." Bass agrees that knock-offs don’t
work, and that "the irreducible element of a good movie
is that it has to have a good script."

Kazan feels that, "if
writers truly becomes partners, they can do a lot to save Hollywood." This
echoes Goldman’s plea for partnership at that fateful moment
when a script is turned over: "At this time of great knowledge,
conceivably at the time of his greatest usefulness, the screenwriter
is cast aside."

Hollywood is and always will
be a place where the cynic eats lunch with the optimist; where
the waves of discouragement and enthusiasm break along the same
shore. The Sony deal could be the heralding of a new day for
the screen- writer, or it could just as easily be another desperate
studio tourniquet. As Pyne so succinctly puts it,” The horrible
and the great thing about Hollywood is that everything is true
until it’s not true anymore." MM