In addition to Shazam! and The Nines, the other project that’s been keeping me busy for the past few months is a new deal over at 20th Century Fox, in which a group of 12 screenwriters will be getting first-dollar gross and a range of creative rights on their scripts. It was just announced.

The twelve writers (some of whom are teams) are:

  • Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”)
  • Me (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Go”)
  • Stuart Beattie (“Collateral”)
  • Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Shrek”)
  • Derek Haas & Michael Brandt (“3:10 to Yuma”)
  • Tim Herlihy (“The Wedding Singer,” “Happy Gilmore”)
  • Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “X-Men: The Last Stand”)
  • Craig Mazin (“Scary Movie 3 and 4”), and
  • Marianne & Cormac Wibberley (“National Treasure,” “National Treasure 2”)

The deal isn’t unprecedented. Producer John Wells put together group of screenwriters who made a similar deal at Warner Bros. earlier this year. We followed the trail they blazed, and we’re indebted. What’s different about our situation is that we’re not a production company. There’s no one “in charge,” and we’re not sharing profits among us. We’re nine writers (or teams) making the same deal.

And what is the deal? Here’s the short version.

We’re each committing to writing an original (i.e. not an adaptation) for Fox — our next original script, in fact. For it, we’ll take a greatly reduced upfront fee, in exchange for our full quotes plus first-dollar gross when the movie gets made. If the movie get made — that’s the gamble the writers are taking.

Helping to ameliorate that risk, we are producers on our projects, and can’t be rewritten except in fairly narrow circumstances. We consult on the major creative decisions (like director, stars, other producers). Lastly, if the project isn’t getting a greenlight, we have the ability to take it back in a timely fashion. 1

Note that when I say “we,” I’m referring the writers individually. There’s no group decision process. No production company. We’re each autonomous entities.

It’s in each writer’s interest to write a really commercial movie that (a) Fox will want to make, and (b) will earn a bazillion dollars.2 To me, that’s the secret of the deal. While there are protections for both sides, the key ingredient is mutual benefit. Both sides have a lot to gain from making it work.

It sounds relatively simple, but Great Zeus, it was complicated. Of all of us, Craig Mazin deserves the biggest props. If I had 10 phone calls a day about it, Craig had 30.3 It was a super-heroic effort, for which he’ll be repaid in alcohol.

And now for the backstory. The day the John Wells deal was announced, Craig called me and asked what I thought about it. I thought it sounded terrific, and so did many other writers. Craig had already had conversations with Ted Elliott about doing something with a group of screenwriters, but the Wells deal was specific and tangible. It provided a focus, a template. Within a few weeks, a group of writers met at my house on a weekend afternoon to discuss the possibilities.4

After phone calls with all of these writers’ representatives, Craig and I met with several studios, explaining why we thought the deal was good for them. There was a lot of interest from most of the studios,5 but Fox stepped up in the biggest and most enthusiastic way. To put it politely, they pursued it very aggressively. To put it less politely, they pursued it with a vigor that sometimes frightened me. But their zeal was genuine, and the deal ended up happening much more quickly than any of us anticipated, through the combined efforts of many attorneys, agents, and executives. I’m loathe to start naming names for fear of leaving off someone who worked their ass off on the deal — some at the cost of family obligations — so I’ll just extend a public thank you to all of them on both sides.

So. Will it work? Will it change anything?

I don’t know. I think it’s best to classify it as an experiment. We’re each committing to one script, so if it simply doesn’t work out, no one is particularly worse off. And it’s hard to say whether the basic idea could (or should) be expanded to include the other kinds of movies screenwriters are hired to write: adaptations, sequel, remakes, and everything else that relies on underlying property. Without the ability to take the project back, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a writer to reduce his upfront money. Even among this group, most scripts don’t become movies. The gamble might not make sense.

What I will say is that as an A-list screenwriter, it’s become increasingly difficult to set up an original project at the studios, who (understandably) want to save their development budgets for the movies they’re pretty sure they’re going to make — largely sequels, adaptations and remakes. I’m very excited to write an original for Fox, a movie not based on anything other than what I think would be great idea. So while this deal is largely about rights and money, I think it has the potential to lead to some better, more original movies. If so, that’s a win for everyone.

Update: Craig has his thoughts up at Artful Writer

  1. That’s why it’s important that these are original scripts. For adaptations or sequels, the underlying rights would make reversion difficult or impossible.
  2. The deal memo doesn’t specify “bazillion,” but it’s a useful benchmark.
  3. I can now explain that the reason I had to [bail on the screening]( for Student Films Across America was that the deal was closing that Friday. My phone was ringing every two minutes as the negotiations kept spinning.
  4. There was no magic process in coming up with these specific writers. There’s at least another dozen who would make just as much sense on a list. A lot of us knew each other, and the few people we didn’t know had great reputations. My hope is that other writers and other studios would see this as something to try, either as a group or individually.
  5. Here’s the pitch: “How would you like nine original scripts by some of the top feature writers for less than what you’d pay for one of them normally? But wait! There’s more!”