LOS ANGELES — David Seidler first sparked to the idea of writing a movie about the life of King George VI in 1980. A stutterer himself, he found the real-life narrative of the English monarch’s struggles to overcome a debilitating stammer moving and profoundly relatable, but Seidler understood that it wasn’t going to be easy to see his script turned into a feature film.
First, he had to wait for the Queen Mum to die; he had asked the royal matriarch for her blessing to tell her husband’s story, and she had requested that he wait until after her passing, since the memories of that time were still too painful. And then, the 73-year-old Seidler explains, there was another, possibly even more significant hurdle: “It was the subject matter.
“If I had gone into any executive office in Hollywood to pitch a story about a dead king who stutters, I would have been out of there in 30 seconds,” he said. “They would have thought I was out of my mind.”
Seidler has a point. For years now, the notoriously risk-averse Hollywood studios have been spending their money on the safest bets possible, big-budget projects and potential franchise properties that usually are based on a book, a video game, a toy or even an amusement park ride. It’s a trend that shows no signs of abatement, with Universal working to bring Stretch Armstrong to the screen, while Paramount develops a Magic 8 Ball movie among many other projects that have been co-opted from the toy aisle.
“We used to make toys based on our movies, and now we are making movies based on toys,” said Nina Jacobson, former head of production at Disney who’s now an independent producer. “We used to be the generators of intellectual property, not just recyclers of it.”
It’s a fact that’s helped drive many of the industry’s most highly acclaimed screenwriters — people such as Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) — to devote more of their time to plum writing assignments such as Zaillian’s current work on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Goldsman’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower,” rather than develop their own ideas.
And it paints a grim picture for many screenwriters hoping to tell original tales, even ones drawn from the lives of compelling people. Among the nominees who will be competing for the original screenplay Oscar when the Academy Awards are handed out Feb. 27, writer-director Christopher Nolan spent 10 years on his mind-bending dream heist thriller “Inception” before the film made it to the screen. Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko went through countless drafts in the five years they labored on the script for the Annette Bening-starrer “The Kids Are All Right.” And Scott Silver and Paul Tamsay & Eric Johnson, among others, worked on “The Fighter” for five years before cameras rolled on the Boston-based drama in July 2009. (Mike Leigh, the fifth nominee in the category, stands apart from the group; his script for the low-budget indie “Another Year,” like many of his films, was workshopped extensively with his actors during a long rehearsals process but was made fairly quickly.)
The other four contenders, though very different, have one thing in common: a long, difficult path to the big screen.
“An adaptation often has an easier road,” says Seidler, whose credits also include 1988’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” and 1999’s animated telling of “The King and I.” “(The studio) has a security blanket with a book. (They say), ‘We’ve optioned a book, it was a successful book. ... Now, if the script doesn’t turn out well, or the film doesn’t turn out brilliantly, then that’s not my fault. That’s the writer’s fault.’”
At one point not so long ago, a well-known writer could pitch an idea to a movie studio, and if it had potential, he could reasonably expect interest — and often cash to turn it into a screenplay. But things really began to change after the writers’ strike in 2007-08. The appetite for original material markedly diminished as studios took the opportunity to cut a lot of the expensive development deals in place at the time.
“The era of the middle-class writer who makes $250,000 a script and people like them, they don’t necessarily deliver movies but they do a good job and they are pleasant to work with, that’s done,” said an agent who represents screenwriters and directors but asked for anonymity. “That was the staple writer business 10 years ago.”
As a result, producers are forced to take on a greater role in advocating for original scripts. “Several years ago, you could walk into a studio with a one-liner and a writer who’s written some scripts and sell it in the room if it was commercial enough,” says Todd Lieberman, a producer on “The Fighter.” “Now you have to prove that there is a movie there, and the best way to prove that is to have the writer write the script.”
Nowadays, those scribes must complete a screenplay and often must land an actor — in the case of Seidler, Geoffrey Rush was the crucial lynchpin that moved “The King’s Speech” closer to a greenlight — or a director before bringing it to the studio. Blumberg and Cholodenko worked closely with Julianne Moore for years before Bening came on board and financing finally came together on “The Kids Are All Right.”
But in the case of “The Fighter,” not even a movie star helped. The story of boxer Micky Ward, his struggle for success and his tempestuous relationship with his half brother, Dicky Eklund, was hindered because it would likely carry an R rating, it was a drama targeted to adults, and it was expensive. In one iteration of the film, its budget hovered around $70 million, with Brad Pitt set to star opposite Mark Wahlberg, also a producer on the film, and Darren Aronofsky directing.
“At the point when Brad Pitt wants to do a movie and you still can’t get it made, it made me think, ‘I’ve got to start doing something else,’” joked Silver, one of three credited writers on “Fighter.” “But a $70-million film about two guys in Lowell, Mass. — one of whom is a crack head — is a huge risk.”
It wasn’t until the project was retooled as a $25-million production — an initial first act that took place at the time of Eklund’s famous fight against Sugar Ray Leonard was cut to reduce costs, Christian Bale was cast as Eklund, and director David O. Russell took the helm — that it found a home. But even then it wasn’t financed by a studio; Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media put up the money for the film.
Lieberman says being required to deliver a complete package to a studio — a great script with a star and/or filmmaker attached — actually can be empowering.
“We’re doing that right now with something that’s been exposed to no one,” Lieberman said. “It’s a spec script with a director involved, and we’re creating a visual plan, a physical effects plan, and we’re going to the studios and saying: ‘Here’s the movie, here’s what it will look like and here’s what it will cost you. Are you in or are you out?’
“For a producer, it’s fun. You get to do the work, you get invested in what it will be and then you get to go make it.”
Additionally, most writers say the extra time they spend shopping an original project usually enables them to improve a script. Blumberg, for example, says that “The Kids Are All Right” nearly went into production in 2006 but that it fell apart at the last moment. It was an event that was crushing at the time, but today, he and Cholodenko consider it a blessing. It afforded them the opportunity to further refine the story about lesbian partners (Bening and Moore) whose long-term relationship is upended when their teenage children reach out to the couple’s sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo).
“We were lucky it didn’t go in 2006,” Blumberg said. “We both agree the script took some big leaps forward in the intervening years.”
He said scenes including those in which Bening’s character sings a Joni Mitchell song at the dinner table and rants about organic farming and heirloom tomatoes were among later additions.
Of course, for every rule, there’s an exception, and in this instance, his name is Christopher Nolan. After cowriting and directing the highest-grossing film of 2008, “The Dark Knight,” for Warner Bros., he was given the greenlight by the studio for “Inception.” But according to Nolan’s wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas, it wasn’t quite that easy.
Nolan first wrote 80 pages of the thriller in 2000 after completing his breakout feature “Memento.” He then had the opportunity to develop “Inception” at Warner’s but declined and instead chose to complete the script on his own.
He wanted more time to refine the project, which is replete with heady ideas and visually intense sequences. It was a more complex project than anything Thomas and Nolan had yet tackled as producers, and they needed time to learn to master a film with special effects that, according to Thomas, seemed “intimidating and read expensive.”
After eight years and “The Dark Knight,” the time seemed right. “We were finally able to go to Warner Bros. and show them a big movie that wasn’t an obvious one for anyone to greenlight,” Thomas said. “They looked on it in a much kinder way than they would have done six to seven years earlier. The previous four movies we made for them were essentially our audition process.”
“Inception,” along with many of the other films in this year’s Oscar race, have done exceedingly well at the box office, proving to studios that original projects executed effectively can be must-sees even if they don’t begin from a piece of existing material.
Many in Hollywood are hopeful it will be the beginning of a new chapter.
“Look at films like ‘Inception,’ ‘Black Swan’ or ‘The Kids Are All Right’ — these are all completely original pieces from writer-directors who are themselves a brand,” independent producer Jacobson said. “I think there is an audience appetite for original material from filmmakers who are willing to create something without the infrastructure of the studio. Working that way has become a great source of originality and invention.”