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'Cowboys & Aliens' Heading for High Noon Showdown Over Writing Credits (exclusive)

Cowboys and Aliens
Courtesy Platinum Studios

A gunfight is brewing over the writing credits for next summer’s Cowboys & Aliens.

Universal and DreamWorks, the studios behind Cowboys, say it is based on a 2006 comic book of the same name. But that comic wasn’t published until nine years after the first Cowboys screenplay was written. The timing is pitting early writers on the project against current A-list scribes Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, who stand to benefit if the studios’ version of events is made official by the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

Eight writers and writing teams have worked on Cowboys for several studios dating to 1997. DreamWorks developed the film off-and-on for more than a decade with Universal, which will release the Jon Favreau-directed action pic domestically in July. (Paramount, which owns rights from having once owned DreamWorks, will open Cowboys internationally).

Cycling through numerous scribes is not unusual with big-budget tentpoles, but the studios recently submitted paperwork to the WGA that listed the writers as Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof, "Based on Platinum Studios’ Comic Book Created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg." That isn’t sitting well with writers who toiled on the screenplay years before Rosenberg’s comic — based on the film concept — came out in 2006.

The dispute likely is headed for an especially rancorous arbitration, highlighting the challenges of assigning lucrative credits on studio franchises that spend years in development.

By some estimates, every third movie in release now entails a detailed WGA deliberation. And major money is at stake. Box-office and production bonuses built into a writer’s contract can be affected, and residuals disappear for uncredited writers. Cowboys, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, could attract huge TV licensing deals and hundreds of millions of dollars in global box office — which could mean additional revenue in the hundreds of thousands for any writer with a credit.

Cowboys was unique from the get-go. Early in 1997, Rosenberg, Platinum Studios’ chairman and CEO, dropped by the William Morris Agency to give agents Alan Gasmer and Rob Carlson a look at posters for unpublished comic book ideas. One jumped out: a cowboy on horseback looking over his shoulder at a gigantic spaceship.

Want to know what happened next? Or who may or may not be getting burned?

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