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Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Final Word on the Robin Hood Debacle

Feels strange calling a film that’s made over $100 million worldwide a debacle, but there it is. The $250 million epic might not break even and there’s certainly not going to be any Oscar love for this Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott project. And while I think Gladiator is one of the most overrated Oscar winners of all time (it’s 200 AD, people drop dead from disease all the time, but Commodus can’t poison Maximus and be done with it?) but what’s really getting all the attention, at least in film blogging circles, is the screenplay and how that was butchered.

Claude Brodesser-Akner has excellent piece in the NY Times Magazine detailing all the changes of fortune. To sum up Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reif, creators of Sleeper Cell, came up with a script called Nottingham which was Robin Hood from the perspective of the Sheriff of Nottingham. It combined the costume swashbuckler with elements of crime procedurals, CSI: Middle Ages.

I’ll just go over some of the most important points from the article:

Most studios and producers immediately passed on the Nottingham script when it hit their in-boxes in January 2007. It was set in the twelfth century (expensive!), it wasn’t based on a toy, board game, or action figure (Robin who?), and so far, it had no big-name talent interested.

This fits with everything I’ve heard about the spec market. Budget matters to the big guys. If you’re a new writer or even an established pair like Voris and Reif, they’re still looking for a reason to say “no.” If your story needs castles, costumes and hundreds of extras, that a pretty big reason to say “no.”

But four days after the spec script went out — an eternity in Hollywood development — it caught fire:

Here’s where Voris and Reif’s world differs from mine. Four days isn’t that long for a new writer. Four WEEKS isn’t that long. I can’t imagine how many screenwriters read that article and became paranoid that they didn’t get the phone call 24 hours later. If they called back faster than that I’d be wondering if they actually read the damn thing.

By the next Monday, Crowe had read the Nottingham script and attached himself as the Sheriff.

This reveals the big truth in Hollywood. Stars and directors are where the power lies. Never forget that writers. You’re not safe unless an A-Lister has your back, and even then it’s not a sure thing. Crash got made because Don Cheadle loved the script and got his friends to sign on. If you’re really interested in protecting the material, get an actor or director on your side.

Interviewed in the Sunday Times of London in April of this year, Scott told a reporter that the original premise was “fucking ridiculous” and that “you’d end up spending 80% of the publicity budget explaining why it was Nottingham and not just Robin Hood.”

Scott’s going to get a lot of hate from writers for this one and rightfully so. I’m going to go slightly against the grain and say he’s not entirely wrong. I have a hard time picturing Nottingham as a HUGE tentpole picture. It strikes me a smaller more modest budget effort where the production values aren’t going to drown out the nuance. The higher the budget goes, usually the more simple the script becomes. See Avatar as example A.

So again, for those keeping score: As the cameras rolled, Stoppard was rewriting Helgeland's rewrite of Webb's rewrite of Helgeland's rewrite of Voris and Reif's original script, which started out with the complete inverse of the present concept.

Now let’s be clear, this situation ISN’T new. And if we’re being honest the screenwriters of Hollywood aren’t against it. The established screenwriters encourage this kind of behavior. Helgeland probably could have stopped everything and saved everyone a lot of dough by saying “This is a great story. You’d be nuts to not want to shoot it.” But that would have meant passing up his own big paycheck. Certainly the Guild isn’t going to object to a system that results in paydays for FIVE different writers. The career goal of most writers now is to be the Helgeland, the Webb or the Stoppard. To be the guy called in to “clean up the mess.”

Finally don’t feel too bad for Voris and Reif. They got their payday. They have story by credit on a summer blockbuster. And the way things work, they’re next deal will be north of 1.5 million. If they really want to see their story in the big screen, better turn it into a novel and hope it becomes a bestseller.

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