The first time the WGA changed my life

In the summer of 1995, a studio executive at Dreamworks, Nina Jacobson, read a script of mine that had gotten some attention in Hollywood, and had a meeting with me in New York. We got along great and, months later, she called me up with an unusual question: would I like to write an animated movie about talking ants?

I had never written an animated movie before, and didn’t really consider it my “area.” I was a “downtown playwright” living in a crappy apartment on 12th St in Manhattan, where prostitutes regularly waited for clients. I was “edgy.” I wrote plays about serial killers and psychic phenomena. But, I reasoned, if I was going to write an animated movie, it might as well be for Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man who had spearheaded the Disney Renaissance with the movies The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and a little bauble called The Lion King.

Nina flew me to Hollywood and treated me very, very well. Everyone at Dreamworks treated me very, very well. I got to meet Steven Spielberg, who gushed to me about how much he loved the screenplay that had gotten Nina’s attention, a moment that I will cherish forever.

Most importantly, I got to take a master class in screenwriting, directly from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had no patience for any writer’s indulgences beyond “WHAT DOES THE GUY WANT?” a phrase he reiterated so often, I wrote it down on a postcard and stuck it over my desk. Because, after all, that is, in fact, the only question a screenwriter should ever be asking, or answering: What does the guy (ie, the protagonist) want?

It wasn’t easy, going from being a smartass downtown playwright to efficient Hollywood scribe, and, looking back on those days, I’m consistently amazed at how well I was treated by the entire staff of the studio, how patient and kind they were to a screenwriter who, literally, didn’t understand the first thing about writing screenplays.

The early days of writing the script for Antz went like this: Nina and I would meet in the morning, talk through the story, and then I’d go write a treatment based on the conversation we’d had. When Nina felt like the story was good enough to take to Jeffrey, we’d have a meeting in his office, or we’d have a meeting with Walter and Laurie Parkes, who were also higher-ups in the Dreamworks production team. Jeffrey, or Walter and Laurie, would listen to the story and give us notes, and then Nina and I would talk over the notes, and then I’d write another treatment.

There would be occasional guest stars. The wonderful screenwriter Zak Penn had been hired on a consultant on the script (Nina had asked Zak to write the script before me, but he was busy working on another project). Zak was a big deal at the time, and was also extremely kind and patient with me as I fumbled my way through the development process. The great writing team Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were on the staff of Dreamworks at the time as sort of free-floating story doctors, and they were also extremely kind and patient with me, sharing their wisdom and humor freely with me. Steven Spielberg sat in on a story meeting at one point and offered his own take on the material. And there were other Dreamworks executives and producers who weighed in on various aspects of the story. To say nothing of the visual consultants who were hired to create vision boards to help me in getting a better picture of the movie I was writing.

In all, I wrote 30 treatments for Antz before being given the green light to write the script. Some of those treatments were as short as two pages or as long as forty.

I was paid for none of them. Those treatments that I wrote over months of development were all just part of the audition process, the same audition process that any writer has to go through in Hollywood in order to get a job writing a screenplay.

I didn’t care, of course, I was a smartass downtown playwright who was staying at the Chateau Marmont, being fed every day by Steven Spielberg’s personal chef, dining at Beverly Hills restaurants with some of the most powerful people in the industry and having an amazing time. The studio even flew me to Chicago for a weekend because I was doing my one-man show there. They showed me nothing but respect and affection.

The day finally came, after about six months of work, that Jeffrey listened to my pitch, said “Yep, that’s it,” and then purchased, for $40 million, an entire animation studio in Palo Alto, and then put me on David Geffen’s private jet to go meet with the directors and dozens of animators who were working to bring my cinematic notions to life.

All very head-spinning stuff for a smartass downtown playwright!I was finally formally hired to write two drafts of a screenplay. I only wrote one, but they paid my contract in full. They then hired Chris and Paul Weitz, an up-and-coming screenwriting brother team, to take over for me. Chris and Paul, I should also note, were ALSO very kind to me, and were cheerful, solicitous and complimentary colleagues for the time we worked together. Chris and Paul, of course, went on to write and direct many, many fine motion pictures.

I didn’t mind being replaced on Antz. Writers in Hollywood get replaced all the time, for a variety of reasons, there’s no reason to take it personally.

Shortly before the movie opened, Nina called me to tell me that the Weitz brothers’ representatives had contacted the studio to alert them that they were seeking to have my name removed from the credits for Antz. It’s easy to see their logic: I had worked on the script for six months, and they had worked on it for two years. What’s more, they had personally worked alongside the directors and animators to best present the most coherent version of the material possible. They had worked hard on the movie, and they felt a sense of ownership. I can’t blame them, I would have too!

Jeffrey Katzenberg, to his everlasting credit, told the Weitz’s reps that, yes, their clients were welcome to challenge the studio’s credit assignment. However, although the movie was animated, and therefore did not fall under the jurisdiction of the WGA, the studio would hire a WGA arbitrator to arbitrate the credit assignment according to WGA rules.

At that point, the Weitz’s reps dropped the complaint and the movie came out with my credit intact. Because, under the arbitration rules of the WGA, they ran the risk of having THEIR names, not mine, removed from the credits. Because the WGA values, above all, the work that the first writer does. Whoever comes after the first writer of a screenplay faces significant hurdles in trying to claim the work as solely their own, under the rules of the WGA.

Just as I did not want to see my credit taken off Antz, I also did not want to see the Weitz’s credit taken off either. They did an incredible amount of work, and under the pressure of a deadline, with a million moving parts churning all around them. My hat’s off to them and all the other people who made the movie what it is. There are no villains here. But without the WGA, I would not have the one hit-movie credit I do.

Of course, I receive no residuals from Antz, because, being animated, it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the WGA.


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  1. […] a number of years now. He’s got two posts worth reading about the current WGA strike, one on how the WGA ensured he got credit for a film he worked on (but wasn’t able to ensure he got a cut of the ongoing profits that film has made), and one […]