How Fox throws writers under the train: The real story behind 'The A-Team' script fiasco
Screenwriters all around town Thursday got a big laugh reading Nikki Finke's new post that blasts away at Alex Young, the former 20th Century Fox production co-president who is now taking the fall for the mangled development process that led to "The A Team" having a battalion of 11 screenwriters working on the film. I give Nikki full credit for digging up the dirt on how Fox managed to hire a football team's worth of writers -- Finke names all the names -- to lend their talents to a film that was described in a Hollywood Reporter review as appearing to be "nearly writer-free. Absolutely no time gets wasted on story, character development or logic." (The writers receiving final credit are Joe Carnahan, who also directed the film, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods.)
But in heaping blame on Young, who left the studio last fall, Finke misses the real story. At Fox, the process that led to the scrum of "A-Team" writers is routine, not out of the ordinary. With the exception of movies made for Elizabeth Gabler's Fox 2000 imprint, where writers are held in high esteem, nearly every movie at Big Fox is put together this way. Finke was apparently protecting a valued source when she made the preposterous claim that Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman "wasn't that close to the tortured 'A-Team' development process." As anyone who's ever worked at Fox can attest, the brilliant, hard-working and, well, often overbearing Rothman is at the center of every key decision -- and some not-so-key decisions -- made at the studio. When Brett Ratner was making "X-Men: The Last Stand" at the studio, he once complained that the studio couldn't even send out publicity material for the film until Rothman had approved the photo stills.
So it's something of a whopper to single out "The A-Team" as an example of Fox writer excess. In fact, according to a number of sources close to the studio, screenwriter pile-ons happen all the time. At Fox, the real art form isn't the movie, but picking the right release date and creating the right poster and trailer. Fox is a packaging studio, where the most creative person isn't any of the screenwriters, but Tony Sella, the marketing wizard who has become something of a genius at crafting irresistible trailers, TV spots and poster art for less-than-irresistible movies.
One of the reasons for Fox's continued commercial success is that the studio has realized that putting a movie on the best possible release date is often more important than many of the creative decisions made in the script process. Everything works backward from the release date, which is why so many screenwriters turn up, spending three or four weeks at a time on a project. At Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer uses teams of writers to help him figure out the storyline and action beats for a film. But at Fox, the writers are writing for production, either because the studio (having already picked a release date) needs a script to prep or has to make script fixes to attract a top actor.
A favorite maxim used by Fox production executives is: "Sometimes the best way to make a movie is to just start making it." So writers are often brought in and told that a film will start shooting in April and since prep begins in January, the studio needs a quick draft in three weeks. If the first writer stumbles, or can't crack all the story points, a new writer arrives and takes over until the assembly line starts running smoothly. It's a strategy that has worked extremely well for the studio's bottom line, but it rarely results in any great art, which is why the reviews for most Fox films (excepting outliers like James Cameron's "Avatar") are so generally awful.
It's hard to top the 11 writers on "A-Team," but Fox's Tom Cruise-starring "Knight & Day," which arrives in theaters June 23, had at least nine writers on it, not counting an uncredited polish by director James Mangold. The writers, in no particular order: Patrick O'Neill (who received sole script credit), Dana Fox, Ted and Nick Griffin, Simon Kinberg (who is one of the studio's favorite quick draft writers), Tim Dowling, Laeta Kalogridis, Scott Frank and Don Payne.
The studio is already up to six or so writers on its "Rise of the Apes" reboot of the "Planet of the Apes" franchise, while it has used at least that many writers on "The City That Sails," a potential Will Smith starring vehicle that began with a script by Andrew Niccol, but has now been rewritten by a variety of top scribes, including John August, Jonathan Topper, Marianne and Cormac Wibberley (who are among Bruckheimer's top writers, presiding over the "National Treasure" franchise) as well as the Oscar-winning Eric Roth, who is serving as a consultant on the project.
I guess you could say this is all good for Hollywood's often underemployed screenwriters, since Fox is the studio private sector equivalent of a giant government stimulus program. But it is rarely good for the quality of movies, since the best movies -- the ones we remember most -- are almost always the ones with a singular voice, not an endless assortment of writers attacking scripts with a hammer and chisel, as if they were skilled laborers on a construction site. But at Fox, more than any other studio, it's the results that count. And as long as the studio keeps making boatloads of money, the true art in its movies will be the art you see in the marketing campaign, not anything you see up on screen.
Photo: "The A-Team's" Bradley Cooper, Liam Neeson and Quinton Jackson at Spike TV's Fourth Annual Guys Choice Awards.
Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images