The Report: 'Cowboys' Writers Shootout

3:50 PM PST 11/10/2010 by Borys Kit
Courtesy Platinum Studios
Graphic novel: "Cowboys" was published in 2006 (above), but DreamWorks began developing a movie in 1997.

Studios: Script based on comic published years after first screenplay.

An Old West 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chairman and CEO, dropped by the William Morris Agency to give agents Alan Gasmer and Rob Carlson a look at posters for unpublished comic book ideas.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. Carlson and Gasmer brought in client Steve Oedekerk (Ace Venura: When Nature Calls), who whipped up a detailed story pitch that sparked eager bids from Disney, Fox, Warner Bros. and a joint Universal/DreamWorks.

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Oedekerk cut a deal with Uni/DW for $500,000 against $1.5 million to write the film, and $3.5 million to direct and produce it. Platinum’s Rosenberg got a few hundred thousand dollars to option the poster. Executives Mark Platt and Kevin Misher began developing it at Universal, and DreamWorks’ Walter Parkes was producing along with Rosenberg and then-Platinum exec Gregory Noveck.

As these things go, Oedekerk moved on after writing a draft, then writer Jeffrey Boam and scribe Chris Hauty each gave it a shot.

Meanwhile, the fantasy-Western hybrid Wild Wild West bombed in summer 1999, putting Cowboys on the back burner. In 2002, Gasmer re-brokered a deal to sell the property to Sony. Writer Thompson Evans was brought on, then X-Men scribe David Hayter worked on a darker version that was made lighter once Pirates of the Caribbean hit big. Sahara scribes Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer took a pass at it in 2005, just before Platinum finally published the single, 100-page graphic novel.

In June 2007, DreamWorks and Universal jumped back in, snagging rights to the graphic novel and the previous chain of title, and hiring Iron Man co-writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby as the screenwriters. Imagine’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard also would produce, along with Rosenberg, Kurtzman and Orci. By 2009, DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg had asked his Transformers writers Kurtzman and Orci to take over the script with their Star Trek producer Lindelof, and Favreau came aboard to direct.

A WGA arbitration was automatic once Kurtzman and Orci shifted into an official writing role. Any time a “principal” such as a producer or director angles for writing credit, arbitration is triggered to protect writers. As such, 50% of the script filmed must be theirs. Now that the studio has delivered its proposed credits, participating writers can file detailed arguments for why they deserve credit. Those at the beginning and end of the process typically fare better than those in the middle.

Especially, it turns out, in this case. Writers who worked on the project at Sony — Evans, Hayter and Donnelly and Oppenheimer — received a letter Nov. 3 from the WGA stating that their contributions are not in the chain of title for the DreamWorks project. Thus, they are not “participating writers” and cannot even arbitrate.

Hayter is unclear how the chain of title could be broken when Rosenberg shepherded the project throughout its development.

“How is it possible that I worked on the script for eight or nine months, handed it off to Scott Rosenberg, they make the movie at a different studio, and they can say those ideas never permeated the script?” he asks. “They paid a lot of writers to work on this movie, the comic comes out years later and then they say it didn’t affect it?”

Because the WGA is early in its research process, none of the writers has decided whether to fight for credit. Universal and DreamWorks declined comment.

Jay A. Fernandez contributed to this report.

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