Big bucks deal for US screen writers

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The Independent Online
IN HOLLYWOOD, screen writers are famous for being treated badly. Their work gets revised, edited, redrafted or thrown out. Their credits are stolen by jealous directors, or fellow writers, or both. And when one of their original concepts turns into a hit at a box office, they share little of the glory and none of the profits.

Or at least not until now. Last week one of Hollywood's most powerful studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, may have triggered a small revolution with a proposal to give 30 of the industry's top writers a cut of the gross receipts of the films they script.

They want to lure the prest-igious writers to Sony and its main film- making arm, Columbia Pictures, and give long-overdue recognition to the people who make the first, and arguably the most important, creative contribution to film.

Two per cent of the gross receipts would be set aside for the writer or writers - meaning that on top of their flat writing fee they stand to make money for the rest of their lives from reruns, video and television rights.

"This is a great deal for us and a great deal for them," said Columbia's president, Amy Pascal, when the deal was announced on Thursday.

But the proposal hit a raw nerve. Sony's rivals protested about the number of percentage points already being given away to actors, producers and directors, leaving precious little for the studios to cover their own costs.

Such complaints served only to underline Sony's real coup: to be in a position to snap up all the best scripts in town and leave its rivals high and dry.

Among the writers in the lucky group of 30 are Paul Attanasio, who wrote Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco, Scott Frank, who wrote the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight, and Ron Bass, whose credits include Rain Man and the Susan Sarandon weepie Stepmom.

Sony's gesture demonstrates the rising status of writers. Two of the most fancied films for this year's Oscars, The Truman Show and Shakespeare in Love, owe much of their success to brilliant scripts, the former by Andrew Niccol, the latter by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

Adulation for writers follows the various Hollywood cults, of the actor (the Method in the Fifties), the director (following the French New Wave, in the Sixties and Seventies) and the producer (the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson school of aliens and big bangs in the Eighties).

Until this past week, the prevailing wisdom about writers in the industry broadly followed the plotline of The Player, Robert Altman's celebrated satire of Hollywood mores: screenwriters are murdered by producers, and producers get away with it.

So now the screenwriters and their union, the Writers' Guild of America, are elated. It's better than ending, like William Holden's screen writer character in Sunset Boulevard, face down in a swimming pool with a bullet in your back.