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Hollywood thwarts the write stuff.

H0LLYWOOD The lament in Hollywood has traditionally been that "writers don't get no respect."

Then along came Sony this year to anoint 34 members of the writing fraternity with gross participation deals--the ultimate symbol of recognition in filmdom.

So things are looking up for scripters, right? Not exactly. They're complaining about a variety of issues.

Among their concerns:

* In the past year or so, several studios--Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. in particular --have started pushing one-draft contracts on writers, to the consternation of all scripters.

* Despite WGA rules, some producers are demanding free rewrites before submitting scripts to studios--a practice decidedly on the upswing.

* While the full impact of the Sony deal will not be known for a few years, writers and observers argue that the deal has created a de facto A-list.

* In these costcutting times, mid-list writers are facing take-it-or leave-it pay cuts as studios make fewer films and spend their dollars on the A-list stars, helmers--and scribes.

* Studios are demanding "auditions" from even seasoned scribes. This often means the writer is asked to come up with a detailed pitch covering all three acts before the studio will consider him for an assignment. Agents complain that their clients are called in for multiple meetings before they're hired or, worse, the client doesn't get the job and the studio has a fully-defined concept for a film sitting on their desks.

"Studios blatantly say `We only want that $250,000-and-below writer, or the $750,000-and-above, and forget anyone in the middle,'" says one literary agent.

Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning author of "Thelma & Louise," says the studios are "not spending that much money on scripts; they're spending it on movie stars and overall production deals with producers and directors. The very highest-paid screenwriters are making $1 million--a fraction of what the mid-level directors are making."

One top literary agent agrees that things are at a critical juncture: "We're seeing more and more of these hoops writers have to jump through, because development money is so tight and the studios want as much as they can before committing."

Upsides too

But there are a few upsides for the write wing. Writers Guild figures show that members' earnings amounted to $716.7 million in 1998, a 5.2% hike over '97. Last year, 1,871 writers were employed on screen projects, up 4.1% from the year before.

While scribes at the top of their vocation are earning more than ever before, newcomers --because they come cheap, and filmmakers are always looking for fresh ideas--are being given more opportunities.

And in April, Sony--to the horror of its competitors--finally let screenwriters in the front door: The studio pacted with 31 writers and scripting teams, giving them 2% gross participation in the films they write. Aside from enhancing their careers, this initial group reportedly inked the deal to benefit a larger pool of writers.

The Sony deal, although touted as the first step toward gross participation for all writers, seems to have broadened the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

"That deal is hard to replicate elsewhere," said the head of a major literary agency. "They got that deal at Sony because they've given commitments to the studio. You'll know it has had a wider effect when you see a bunch of writers who get that deal without having to give a commitment."

In the second year of an exclusive three-year deal at Sony, Ron Bass ("Rain Man," "My Best Friend's Wedding"), who helped engineer the 2% agreement, says it's "regrettable" that some have begun calling this group "the A-list."

"The attempt that we made was to try to include other writers, to make a commitment that would benefit a much larger group of writers," he says.

Bass points out that, beyond the 34 scribes who form the core of the group, "another 200 to 300 people are eligible" if they meet the qualifications by selling a feature script for $750,000, a spec script for $1 million or more, or receiving either an Oscar nomination or a WGA award for screenplay.

Ticklish issue

Also worrying a lot of scribes is the first-draft issue. Historically, writers signed guaranteed contracts for a first draft and usually two rewriting steps and a polish. But under the current practice, writers are guaranteed only a fee for their first draft, and any subsequent rewrites and polishes are optional.

Writers Guild of America West prexy Daniel Petrie Jr. says the guild "has not pursued anything on first-draft deals, primarily because these are generally way over-scale deals and the writer can make it if he wants to."

The guild is, however, going after studios and producers who insist on free rewrites as a matter of course.

A first-draft deal doesn't necessarily diminish a writer's current quote. Agents often negotiate "bumps" in the optional rewrite steps so that, if the studio wants to continue with the scribe, the writer's earnings are actually increased.

Still, there are many who object to institutionalizing the first-draft-only principle.

"You don't ever find the story until the second draft," says Khouri. "You pick up the pearls and turn it into what it's supposed to be.

"A lot of the movies that don't work out so well were put together by a bunch of writers --they're Franxkenstein monsters," Khouri continues. "The movies that stay with us are the voice of a single writer."

Robin Swicord ("Little Women," "Practical Magic") agrees.

"It seems like a silly place to save money, and it will lead to the one practice that has weakened screenwriting, which is hiring sequential writers," she says. Swicord's husband, Nicholas Kazan, calls the first-draft idea "incredibly shortsighted."

"It's like limiting an actor to one take or a director to one cut," says Kazan, whose adaptation "Bicentennial Man," with Robin Williams, is in production for Disney.

Kazan says most writers he has spoken to seem "unwilling to do these deals. It's detrimental to the creative process and it's detrimental to our incomes," he asserts. "It hurts everyone and it's going to hurt the studios. I just won't do it. I'll walk away."

Kazan is lucky enough to be one of those who could walk away, but times are tough for many mid-listers (such as those who've made a lot of money in the past but have watched as their projects flopped or never got made).

"It's really tight out there," says Steve Wilson, co-writer with Brent Maddock of "Wild Wild West."

"Whereas before we'd always strike a deal for three drafts and a polish, now it's not uncommon to have just two drafts," Wilson says. "What it reflects is the increasing tendency to use multiple writers."

Still, he says, there's a benefit for writers in the increasing number of outlets for films--"You're going to see movies on the net or exhibited digitally in theaters"--because there will be more work, if fewer dollars per production.

On the other hand, Dana Stevens, who wrote "For Love of the Game" and "City of Angels," says she does not necessarily object to first-draft-only deals, "because I don't want to be stuck in development hell."

Lawyers let loose

Though WGA officials insist the move is not tied to the new preponderance of one-draft contracts, the guild has hired a lawyer to go after studios that insist on free rewrites. In fact, free rewrites have been around forever, but the WGA has not taken a strong stance against them until now.

"The free rewrite problem is so out of hand that writers don't ring the alarm bell except in the most outrageous circumstances, and often not even then," Petrie wrote in the guild's June newsletter. "We are no longer waiting for individual writers to complain. We're trying to act as smoke detectors. Once the Guild finds a problem, it will file arbitration claims without writers having to come forward and put themselves on the line."

Over the past several months, the guild has been conducting a broad investigation to identify companies that ask writers to perform script revisions, including rewrites and polishes, without paying at least the minimum compensation mandated by guild rules, plus pension and health contributions.

Speaking to Variety, Petrie says that at least one free rewrite was often done as a matter of course.

"The problem is that the kind of thing we used to do as a favor is now expected or demanded," he says. "Moreover, multiple free rewrites are expected, and it's becoming exploitative."

Writers who feel exploited, he says, "don't want to single themselves out and complain." As a result, it's up to the guild to go after the studios "even when the writer objects."

Compounding the problem is the reality that some writers "like to hand in several drafts before they're ready to call it their official first draft," Petrie says. "But the fact that some writers do it as part of their process is sometimes used as a weapon to make other writers do the same thing."

The guild's new attorney, Lesley Sive, has reviewed numerous writing services contracts, work lists and other evidence, and has filed arbitration claims over several theatrical and longform TV projects.

Guild officials declined to provide details of the cases being arbitrated.

"The deal is that they're not talked about," Petrie says. "The benefit of going to arbitration is that it's an alternative to going to court."

"This is a very strange polar universe," concludes a literary rep on the front lines. "Studios are like lion tamers, who never want to let the writers know how much power they really have."
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Title Annotation:Hollywood writers complain
Date:Jun 21, 1999
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