Saturday, June 03, 2006

Turn around, Used Guys

Although the prospect of ever shepherding a script through the development maze into actual production may seem to be remote, at best, to the aspiring screenwriter, he/she can perhpas take some small comfort in knowing that even the pros have the plug pulled on them now and then. Witness the recent reversal of fortunes for Jay Roach, who had Fox shut things down on his latest film, Used Guys, just as filming was set to begin on location in New Mexico.

This turnaround is raising more eyebrows than might normally be expected because the project seemed to have all the elements that studios appear to be looking for these days: Roach has directed two successful franchises (Meet The Parents and Austin Powers) and the two headliners, Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, are as bankable as any comedy leads around. Unfortunately, that star power comes at a price and, with a sci-fi/comedy premise, the budget for Used Guys had creeped past the $100 million dollar mark when Fox said no mas. The story -- in a world where women rule the earth, two obsolete pleasure clones escape in search of a mythical "Mantopia" -- sounded rife with comic possibilites for all concerned.

But fear is the showkiller these days and, like the boss Remo in Casino, when given the choice of letting the made men who could testify against him keep their vow of omerta or letting them sleep with the fishes, the studio said "Look, why take a chance?" And in the end, the person to feel the most sympathy for is probably the screenwriter, Mickey Birnbaum. IMDB indicates that this was his first credited script and Fox's move could cost him financially as well:

"Mickey Birnbaum, the movie’s screenwriter, who stood to make millions of dollars if the movie became a success, was equally surprised. 'I’m shocked, like everybody else,” he said. “I’ve been told the party line: That budget issues are at the heart of it'"

Although presumably the movie didn't even have to become a success, just a movie. Ouch.

If any lesson can be learned from the story by those of us toiling away in obscurity, it's that costs matter and should be factored into spec writing if one has any intentions of ever selling the work. All things being equal, a character-driven drama that can be filmed with a minimum of locations or special effects will likely have more commercial appeal than a killer condensation of of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen down to 120 pages. At least for the screenwriter who is an unknown quantity to industry executives, agents, or managers. Though even proven talent with high concept in hand is apparently no sure thing anymore either.


  • In a lot of cases writers DO need to focus on budget issues in their work (most especially for independent or low-budget filmmaking), the budget issues the USED GUYS stuff referred to had more to do with Jay's filmmaking style (read: lots of takes) and the fact that Ben and Jim and Jay are all gross players (I'm not sure if Jay's are first dollar, but Ben and Jim both get hefty first dollar points).

    A lot of folks think this is why good films die and hope that things will change, but since studios believe you need a movie star to open a film, and agents know they hold the keys to the kingdom we will continue to see decent films (not necessarily counting USED GUYS as one of those since I haven't read it) die. Hollywood chakras are out of balance -- no one piece is more important than any other in good filmmaking.

    By Blogger The Film Diva, at 8:21 AM  

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