Max Landis — who this year sold two spec scripts that came with greenlight commitments within a matter of weeks — might well be the screenwriter second coming of Network’s Howard Beale, setting an example that goes against the third-class treatment afforded Hollywood scribes. No matter that Landis is a slightly built kid who looks like he would be more at home on a skateboard than behind a keyboard. Or that he grew up part of the business establishment, the son of veteran director John Landis.
After hatching a number of original spec scripts, including his 2012 pic Chronicle, that were sold in splashy studio deals and then blunted in a development process he was not part of, Landis had his Beale moment. It led him to write, in a torrent, the scripts Bright, Deeper and Higher, which he instructed his WME and Writ Large reps to sell anywhere but the major studios that are usually the first stop.
After a spirited bidding war, Netflix put down a startling $90 million for Bright, with Landis pocketing $3.5 million for his spec (one of the highest sums a writer has seen in years). Deeper was next; MGM committed to an under $40 million budget for a film that stars Bradley Cooper with White God’s Kornel Mundruczo. Already, Landis has done something to surpass Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas’ accomplishments, when they were selling $4 million specs at a time when writers held more sway than now. One-step deals and sweepstakes pitching are the norm, and Landis’ frustration with that system fueled him to become a disruptor.
“As a screenwriter, you are at the bottom of the totem pole, with no control over anything, and yet you are the one blamed in the reviews,” Landis says. “I slowly learned the hard way, if you can’t shepherd your project to some degree it will wander off without you, because there are so many elements of the current studio system that are broken. Everyone is complacent within them.”
After the success of Chronicle, Landis was courted as most fresh screenwriters are. He developed Victor Frankenstein — ”a movie that, in its execution, was so different from my script” — and endured an ousting from a Power Rangers refresh that he had originated. “I pitched it originally, and then was told, ‘We’re moving on.’ I wanted to write a cool, pulpy good movie, but I didn’t control it.”
It turned out the key was Landis’ gift for hatching his own IP; smart, creative movies that put good storytelling above all else. “I started talking to my team and trying to find ways to break the system and inject variables into it.”
Why do writers so often get the short end of the stick? “What’s wrong with the system is fear,” Landis explains. “As recently as last year, I was told in a meeting that R-rated superhero movies would never work, and that they don’t make money anymore. Then comes Deadpool. As screenwriters we have no power, and why is it that way?”
Landis knows writers are losing patience, but studio flirtations and the promise of steady income after years of struggle makes them gun-shy. “Once they have success in that studio system, they’re scared to go outside. They’re not willing to take the risk, because they’ve been brainwashed by the idea of this system that is irrevocably broken and driven by metrics and development.”
On a roll, Landis continues: “I just got sick to death of it. I was mad as hell and I wasn’t going to take it anymore, and I said, ‘I’m not selling my script to a studio unless it is completely packaged.’ ”
Perhaps because of his punk sensibility, or perhaps because he’s got a famous father, Landis isn’t somebody scribes are rallying around like Scots on William Wallace, despite his successes this year. But he doesn’t seem disappointed he’s not winning popularity contests. “I have to throw my own wild parties in LA because I don’t get invited to the good ones,” he laughs. “I’m very intense and some people seem to love to hate me. But I’m also getting more people saying I’ve inspired them.”
In the end, the Max Landis manifesto doesn’t seem too unreasonable to anyone who ever stepped into the movie theater as a kid and dreamed of a life working in cinema. “I’m living my dream,” he says, “and people keep f*cking with my dream. Well, I’m going to f*ck them back. I don’t hate any of those people, but from the moment I realized how wrong it could go, and how it could cause so many of my projects to just sit in the middle of nowhere with nothing happening to them, why would I do anything but try to find a new way?”