Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday Questions

Thanks as always for your Friday Questions. Here are this week’s batch:

Dhruv leads off:

In early 80s Hollywood changed forever after UA sank due to 'Heaven's Gate'. Due to the prevailing situation, were all the studios overtly cautious on script buying and approving the projects?

Were any of your scripts, including 'STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE', affected due to 'Heaven's Gate' debacle?

Studios were more cautious about big budget movies and especially more cautious about directors. Usually it was the director who would go wildly over-budget. Studios really started clamping down. HEAVEN’S GATE was not only a financial disaster but it was a huge embarrassment to the studio. Studios don’t like to be embarrassed.

As for our work, since we wrote comedies there was less concern. I don’t recall ever getting a studio note telling us to scale back a scene because it might be too costly.  David and I were never hired for our "scope."

Phil also has a question regarding that STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE screenplay we once wrote for Columbia

Do you get back your script's rights after some time. It's 25 years now. Will it revert back to you, since it's not made?

There is this strange window that after a certain number of years – I believe it’s seven – you can ask for the rights back. But that window closes after a few years. It’s pretty bizarre. We never tried to get STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE back, but we did once try to get another screenplay we had done for Columbia back and the window had long since closed.

Mel Agar wonders:

I was watching first season episodes of Cheers, and I was struck by the depth of the writing staff in terms of talent and previous experience. That got me wondering ... how does a first season writers' room get assembled?

Well, first it depends on budget. In the case of CHEERS, it was a different era. The original staff was very small – The Charles Brothers and me and David Isaacs.

Ironically, we had never worked with the Charles Brothers before coming aboard CHEERS. Usually you try to surround yourself with writers you know and have worked with. The Charles Brothers came from TAXI and since that show was still on they weren’t able to use any of the TAXI writers they were familiar with. In a sense they took a real chance with us. Considering we stayed with the show for nine years I think it worked out.

And finally, from Keith:

I'm curious--what did you think of Newhart (the later show set in the Vermont inn)? The best ending for any series ever.

I liked the new NEWHART and thought they surrounded Bob with some very funny characters. Larry, Daryl, and Daryl always made me laugh. I loved Tom Poston and Julia Duffy. I wish Bob himself would have done more. In most episodes he just stood behind the front desk in the lobby.

But overall there was a nutty level of writing and I enjoyed the show thoroughly.

What’s your Friday Question?


Dhruv said...

Thanks for the reply Ken :)

Yes I did read in some of the articles online, that the backlash at that time against the studio executives was severe.

The critics questioned why the studio executives failed to control the expenses and take remedial actions. If I am not mistaken, one UA executive Peter Bart was fired and he subsequently wrote a book about it too.

Phil said...

Thanks Ken.

I was hoping that the rights would permanently revert back to you.

Dhruv said...

Regarding 'STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE', after reading the coverage on your blog I felt like seeing some theme park based movies.

I saw 'Adventureland' in which Kristen Stewart's acting was really good. I haven't seen her 'Twilight' movies, which by popular opinion, is bad. But in this movie, both her and Jesse Eisenberg's acting was good. It was directed by Greg Mottola who also directed 'Superbad'.

Then I saw one of my favorite movies again, 'The Way, Way Back'. This small movie was by the writer duo Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. Sam Rockwell gives one of his best performance. Liam James acting is great too.

I wish more such movies are made, and was disappointed when you said in another question that you wont be getting back the rights. That would have been a great movie, if it was made.

Andrew said...

Out of curiosity I watched Heaven's Gate a few years ago (it was at my local library). It was long and unwieldy in some places, and needed editing. But overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was surprised by how good it was. It's too bad it acquired such a negative reputation.

Unkystan said...

Completely off topic Friday question. In a recent podcast you discussed the changes in TV writing over the years. I read that for My Three Sons, Fred MacMurray’s contract had him working only a few weeks at a time and all of his scenes were filmed at once. Any idea how the writers could do this?

E. Yarber said...

HEAVEN'S GATE was not an isolated case. This has been part of the business pretty much as long as films have been made in Hollywood.

You could just easily point to CLEOPATRA, PAINT YOUR WAGON or DOCTOR DOOLITTLE as big-budget bombs that led the studios to abandon the old-fashioned Hollywood method of making films when low-budget "New Hollywood" stuff like EASY RIDER made huge profits. There was an entire period in which the suits had to hand control over to the auteurs because they felt they no longer knew how to reach an audience. Once STAR WARS and the like showed that major hits could once again be found through pop culture instead of individual visions, HEAVEN'S GATE was merely a case of one "art" director going too far and allowing the studios to clamp down on the others who had emerged in that window of time.

Buster Keaton's massive expenditures on THE GENERAL would soon lead to his losing creative autonomy, while Von Stroheim's GREED was cut to a fraction of its original marathon running time.

Back in the 1930s, Universal was noted for low-budget westerns. Carl Laemmle Jr. wanted to raise the stakes. He hit paydirt with FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but big-budget prestige films like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and SHOW BOAT pushed the studio's resources too much and needed more distribution than they could manage, dependent as they were on independent small-town theaters instead of venues Universal itself owned. This over-extension led to the Laemmles going bankrupt and the studio moving into new hands.

In the 1940s, RKO's deal with Orson Welles led to now-classic films that were considered expensive disasters at the time, leading to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS being gutted and IT'S ALL TRUE shut down during production.

The rule of thumb seems to be that someone stumbles on a major gamble, it gives the money men the chance to clean house as they had wanted to do anyway.

Janet Ybarra said...

The only drawback to NEWHART was the addition of the Michael character. Not a knock on Peter Scolari, who played the role but I just didn't see him meshing well with the rest of the ensemble.

The character was whiny and one-dimensional, which is what he was supposed to be. But we already had Julia Duffy's character and that seemed to be enough whininess.

Cade said...

I tried to watch the "Murphy Brown" revival again last night. There seem to be so many problems. First, what is with the horrible laugh track? I thought this was shot in front of an audience. Secondly, they are trying to force the political elements. In the original series, it was much more organic and earned. Lastly and most importantly, it's just not funny. (Maybe that's why the laugh track.) This leads to my question, can you sometimes not tell on the stage that something isn't working? And are you tempted to force story lines in an attempt to get attention, rather than letting things happen naturally?

Janet Ybarra said...

Question for you, Ken, as a follow-up to your NEWHART Q&A. Why do you think THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and NEWHART were hits but his next series, BOB, bombed?

Baylink said...

Technical followup: The rights are actually your copyright, conveyed in an assignment, right, not work-for-hire?

If so, would a studio bounce it if the assignment included a term similar to "this assignment lapses if bonafide production on the project does not begin within ten years of the date on the document"?

Baylink said...

Unkystan: As long as the scripts were in (the job, usually, of the producer), then it's actually the Unit Production Manager's responsibility to schedule what shoots when, and that would probably be a thing they could work out, yes.

VP81955 said...

When "My Man Godfrey" (which TCM ran last night as part of its "Funny Ladies" spotlight series this month) hit theaters in September 1936, Universal billed it as the first hit of "the new [post-Laemmle] Universal!" Carole Lombard's other film for the studio, "Love Before Breakfast" at the start of '36, was made under the Laemmle regime, which relinquished control during production of "Godfrey."

Mike Doran said...

In re Fred MacMurray and My Three Sons:

Don Fedderson, who ran Sons, had a tight operation:
All episodes were written by the same two writing teams, working in coordination.
One director handled all the episodes, working with the production staff to keep track of which scenes went where.
Because My Three Sons had a full-season deal, Fedderson & Co. could plan 30+ episodes well in advance of filming.
Later on, Fedderson wangled similar deals for Brian Keith (Family Affair) and Henry Fonda (The Smith Family).

Mills said...

Re-posting my Sep 29th comment:

The note here is positive of your script. But if not, just change the title and the first chapter here and there and the end too and send it back. It wont show up in their old records and so you get another shot.

I did it a few times.

It's simple Ken, you got to beat the rotten system by hook or crook. So nothing wrong in sending the same stuff again and again by tweaking here and there.

CarolMR said...

Unkystan, I have read the same thing about Fred MacMurray and My Three Sons. It drove William Frawley (who played Bub) crazy because Frawley was used to filming in sequence on I Love Lucy. I'm really enjoying watching My Three Sons on MeTv. The first three seasons were especially good. My favorite is the excellent "Countdown," the 4th episode of season one.

cadavra said...

MURPHY definitely has a live audience; listening closely, you can tell the difference. Are they sweetened sometimes? Probably, but mch of what you're hearing is real.

And once again, it was the #1 scripted show in its slot last night, retaining most of its audience from last week despite a special crossover stunt on ABC. The haters keep calling it a flop, but it's not.

Janet Ybarra said...

Don't forget Ishtar...

Michael said...

I recall late in NEWHART's run they tried to get Bob out from behind the reception desk more by having him host a local TV show interviewing authors.

Jon B. said...

To be fair, Bob Newhart also hosted a local TV talk show. He didn't just stand behind a desk in the lobby. But you knew that.

Ron Rettig said...

Liked Heaven's Gate so much I bought the BluRay DVD when it came out.

E. Yarber said...

I've heard about the notion of resubmitting scripts many times and explained it at least once here. In the story departments I worked for, every submission was logged on the computer, along with whoever read it. If I covered a script by someone who had been good enough to consider, their future work would go back to me so I could check my old notes and see if they were improving. If someone was fishing for better results by changing a page or two and resubmitting something that had already been rejected, I'd note that too, and it weighed against the writer. Our staff already had to deal with a sea of submissions and weren't too excited about wasting time again on something weak when there was a chance of finding something much better in the pile we hadn't gotten to yet.

Writers are dealing with experienced editors, not a slot machine where you keep putting in a nickel hoping the damn machine will finally pay off. Nothing made me happier than to discover a new talent, but they had to earn that rating, not try to sneak past the gate. Trust me, there wasn't any shortcut scheme we hadn't seen over and over, so it's better to treat us as potential friends instead of obstacles between you and the Names.

As far as a writer's copyright in a screenplay, the crucial factor is that while the author is the composer of the script, he or she is generally not the creator of the FILM made from it. When I had screenplays optioned, the contract always stated clearly that the producer and director who would actually make the movie were the ones who had control over the text. They could bring in another writer, they could change the location from London to Knoxville, and where I had visualized Cary Grant as the lead they could cast Buddy Hackett. I didn't have to go through the hell of scouting locations, setting a shooting schedule, or negotiating deals with actors, so the filmmakers had every right to do what they had to do in order to get the project in the can without me hanging over their shoulder complaining that my vision was different. Movies are a COLLABORATIVE medium and each participant has to understand their role in the machine. Sometimes the writer is brought further into the process, but many are happy just to hang around at their desk working on the next story.

And some deals can last to infinity and beyond. One fellow bought the RKO inventory of unfilmed scripts, and I found myself in the odd position of developing a project written by Herman j. Mankiewicz. At least I can honestly state that I never saw him drink on the job.

DBenson said...

A story I recall reading in a few different forms: The Fox exec who fought for getting "Star Wars" made was briefly a golden boy, then was crucified when it was realized Lucas was paid in rights instead of cash (a deal that looked swell when the studio didn't expect a big hit).

We keep hearing about paranoid, CYA-ing executives. Are there some entertainingly absurd cases where their paranoia was justified?

Todd Everett said...

"Ishtar" was -- and remains -- a funny, if not the funniest ever, movie. It came out on Blu-ray a while back (sadly without an Elaine May commentary track), so somebody must agree, once they get over the idea of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in a "Road" picture.

Problem was, critics were reviewing the budget -- which does seem excessive, but was up to the studio to deal with. Ticket prices are the theater were the same as anything else,

Liggie said...

Janet, I think "Bob" was seen by viewers as "more of the same". Newhart's character seemed to be the same as in his first two shows, just that he was a cartoonist instead of a psychiatrist or innkeeper; and there were the usual motley collection of supporting characters. The only difference was that "Bob" had an adult daughter (the criminally overlooked Cynthia Stevenson).

Plus, the early '90s were a transition period for sitcoms. Fox and its unique shows were taking storm, "Cheers" was winding down", and soon after came the juggernauts of "Fraiser" and "Friends".

Myles said...

It does shoot in front of a live studio audience. Tickets are available on and I know someone who has attended. You aren't likely to find a current multi-cam show on broadcast TV that has fake audience laughs. Between and you will probably find live tapings for every multi-cam.

Breadbaker said...

We saw Eric Idle on Monday in Seattle and he had an interesting take on US versus British sitcoms. He had done two US sitcoms and said he never would again. The reason was that the script kept changing every day. He said that on Monty Python, all the scripts for the entire season were done in advance, and then memorized, and rehearsed, and only minimal ad libs were allowed. Very, very different from a "writer's room".

He also said that he and Kathy Griffin were admonished to keep down the string of banter they threw at one another off the set on "Suddenly Susan", because it was interfering with the production. I suspect what they were saying would have been funnier than that series was.

DARON72 said...

I always felt that the original "Bob" format was an ill fit for the buttoned down Newhart. I believed him as a psychologist and innkeeper but making him a comic book writer seemed a little hard to take. I really liked the show when it was first broadcast but after re-watching some episodes recently, I think Newhart's future "George And Leo" co-star Judd Hirsch might have made more sense in that role.

Tim G said...

"Bob" struck me as a great show, and Cynthia Stevenson had natural timing. She had "it," kind of like Ken was talking about with Vickie Lawrence (I actually agree and am enjoying The Cool Kids--though Vickie Lawrence's timing and cadence in the Mama's Family run got progressively worse as the show went on).

When Betty White joined Bob in its second season as the setting shifted from comic book studio to greeting card company, the show cemented a great ensemble feel that reminded me of the Saturday nights of the 70s on CBS. Betty White's Sylvia was closer to Sue Ann Nivens (an all-time great character) than to Rose from Golden Girls, and I was glad for the sharpness in which she specialized.

That's a good point about the in-between Cheers and Friends feel of that show at that particular time.

Y. Knott said...

Actually, I'd say "Bob" (the show) had a number of problems.

First off, Bob Newhart WASN'T playing the same character he played before -- his character here was much angrier than Bob Hartley or Dick Loudon. It may have been an attempt to shake things up, but it didn't play to Newhart's strengths.

Second, the supporting cast wasn't as strong as in previous shows (although Cynthia Stevenson was reliably great).

Third, the comic book stuff simply wasn't interesting -- the main conflict of the show is "will Bob allow his comic book character, who is dull and long forgotten even in the world of the show, to be made grittier and more modern?" This ongoing question unsurprisingly failed to grip the public imagination.

Problem 4: when they overhauled the show in season 2 to try to correct problems two and three (so the comic book stuff was completely dumped, and most of the supporting cast was dropped), the show somehow got worse. Season 2 lasted a month, then was gone.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

I've watched Heaven's Gate twice and pretty much enjoyed it on both occasions, and I'm glad its reputation has generally improved over the years. It *is* overindulgent and would have been improved had it been cut shorter, but even so, it deserved better than it got at the time. Unfortunately all the negative publicity pre-release, tanking United Artists, and tales of Michael Cimino's egomaniacal behaviour pretty much doomed the film in 1980. But if we're talking Cimino I'd say Heaven's Gate holds up better than The Deer Hunter.

Mark said...

“Bob” was produced by Ken’s former “Cheers” colleagues, Cheri & Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton. The premise wasn’t great, but I remember some good individual episodes. The second season overhaul was meant to address that problem, but didn’t. I also remember that the actress playing his wife was too young for the role, and wasn’t that much older than the actress playing his daughter (who was marvelous).

While Murphy Brown has not yet reached “flop” status, it IS a disappointment. In total audience, it lost about 20% of its “Mom” lead-in last night (an established brand like Murphy should be able to stand on its own). But we all know that total audience doesn’t matter - it’s the 18-49 demographic that matters. Murphy came in third place in its timeslot in 18-49, and it lost about 25% of its “Mom” lead in. It also had the oldest median age audience of any show on the major broadcast networks last night. Not a success. I don’t see a second season coming with those numbers.

thirteen said...

Best ending for a series, ever ... hmmm. I think that honor goes to NYPD Blue. Sipowicz started the series as a bum, a con artist, a bad guy. He ended it redeemed, worthy and in a position of moral and legal authority. Plus, the character was played by the best actor on television. I've always liked the fact that the last scene ever shot was the last scene we saw. So, that.

gottacook said...

The UA executive who was fired after the two brief theatrical releases of Heaven's Gate (the November 1980 longer version and the spring 1981 shorter one), just before the whole company was sold to MGM and ceased to exist, was Steven Bach. His book Final Cut (1985) is so entertaining that you don't need to have seen the movie to enjoy the story of what happened.

cadavra said...

In terms of ass-covering, one shining example that went in the opposite direction was Wendy Finerman, one of the producers of FORREST GUMP. As production progressed, she became more and more convinced that it was going to be a gigantic fiasco, and eventually sold off her points for cash. That lack of faith literally cost her tens of millions of dollars.