With the motion picture business shifting almost exclusively to franchises over the past decades, screenwriters are increasingly put through the wringer as they find themselves replaced and replaced again throughout protracted development processes. It’s a punishing road that can be demoralizing for writers who have often spent months pitching for an open writing assignment. But as more and more streamers look to add content to their film slates, screenwriters are finding new opportunities to flip the script.
A high-profile comic book movie set to debut next year recently had its final script submitted to the WGA for screenwriting credit, and insiders tell Deadline that a staggering 45 writers had some sort of involvement with the script at various stages through the development process. The likelihood that all those writers will get credit is “basically impossible”, according to one source close to the project. And while this might represent an extreme example, having as many as 20 writers involved on a script has become all too common. This can be especially frustrating to the original writers when it comes to the credit bonus they receive when the guild signs off on who will ultimately get a byline on the script. According to several literary agents, writers often count on those big-money credit bonuses, and the fear they won’t come is increasingly pronounced.
But in the past year, screenwriters have started to feel hopeful as streamers rush to outbid the major studios for high-profile spec scripts with A-list talent attached. William N. Collage’s Emancipation sold to Apple for more than $100 million with Will Smith attached to star and Antoine Fuqua directing. An untitled Formula One script by Ehren Kruger that came with Brad Pitt attached also sold to Apple for more than $200 million. In both cases, the screenwriters have been properly compensated upfront, and they’ve been in a stronger position to control the rewrite process.
These sales were some of the biggest, but streamers’ interest in original content would seem to indicate that the trend won’t dissipate any time soon. One agent, describing streamers’ slates, says, “We have these big buyers with these huge homes and no furniture. At one point we were just filling their shelves; writers are now giving them the furniture.”
It’s an approach to project origination that is starting to seep into the theatrical side of the business, too. MGM recently acquired a package for Challengers, written by Justin Kuritzkes, with Luca Guadagnino and Zendaya attached. Kuritzkes wasn’t even a WGA member when the package sold, but given MGM’s need to compete with the streamers, the studio paid big bucks and Kuritzkes scored a seven-figure pay day.
It’s not just an improved payday for writers emerging from these big sales. They’re also finding newfound leverage as a key part of the dealmaking, negotiating producer and executive producer credits that make it harder for studios to cut them out of the process. In some cases—as with the seven-figure sale to Netflix of Below by writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock—the deal even includes a provision not to replace the writers at all.
For years, the theatrical business has disempowered writers and decimated the spec market. But as the fight for content intensifies, it’s the spec stars who are taking back control.
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