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Opens December 25th
By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN, Times Staff Writer
January 1, 1999
How's this for a great Hollywood success story? Two middle-aged screenwriters who haven't had a film produced in nearly 15 years sell a script that became Miramax's big teen entry in the crowded holiday movie marketplace.
That's the story behind The Faculty, Miramax's new $23-million sci-fi thriller with a scary premise any teenager could identify with: "Oh my God, all my teachers are aliens!"
However, that's not the only story Miramax wants to sell. The film debuted at No. 5 with a weekend box-office total of $11.6 million, a modest showing considering that Miramax spent a company record $30 million marketing the film, which is being released by its Dimension Films subsidiary.
Populated with a cast of little-known young actors, the movie's biggest marketing draw, along with its concept, is its screenwriter, Kevin Williamson. He's already a brand name of Spielbergian proportions among high schoolers for creating the "Scream" horror film series and the hit TV show "Dawson's Creek."
The film's ads don't even mention its young stars. Instead, they bill "The Faculty" as being a thriller "From the director of 'Desperado' " with a "Screenplay by the writer of 'Scream' & 'Scream 2.' " A studio known for its savvy marketing machinery, Miramax couldn't bill Williamson as prominently--or succinctly--if he was sharing billing with two other writers. So after buying the writers' original script for $225,000, Miramax paid an additional sum--roughly $100,000--in return for the writers' agreement to take a story credit and waive their right to arbitration for a shared screenplay credit.
"I like to gamble in Vegas, but if we'd gone to arbitration and lost, we would've regretted not taking the money," says David Wechter, 42, who wrote the original script with Bruce Kimmel, 51. "This way, Miramax bought the right to say on their posters that the screenplay is by Kevin Williamson, who's their most promotable name. And I get to put my kids through college, so it's a great deal for everybody."
Wechter, who directs reality-based TV shows, and Kimmel, who produces Broadway revival cast albums, only have one beef: Miramax co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein, no slouches when it comes to hyperbole, have repeatedly credited Williamson in public statements with creating the movie's teen sci-fi thriller concept. "Since it was our idea," Wechter says, "you'd have to call it a little bit of rewriting of history."
The story behind "The Faculty's" writing credits offers a revealing glimpse of how far Miramax will go to get marketing mileage out of Williamson, who has more name recognition with young moviegoers than any filmmaker since John Hughes.
According to a Writers Guild spokesperson, the guild does not normally approve credit buyouts, fearing that a powerful studio might pressure writers into giving up screenplay credit. The guild does allow writers to make credit agreements among themselves as long as the credits have not been directed or suggested by the film studio.
Wechter and Kimmel say no arm twisting was involved in their buyout.
"When we read Kevin's final draft, we realized arbitration could go either way," Kimmel says. "We thought, if we lose, we'd kick ourselves forever. So it became a business decision."
The Weinsteins have given frequent interviews about this film and their company, but they refused to comment for this story, as did Cary Granat, president of Dimension Films.
"We weren't trying to create something out of thin air," says Mark Gill, president of Miramax Los Angeles. "When you have the opportunity to say your movie is from Kevin Williamson, it's an awfully potent marketing tool. Among under-25 moviegoers, the billing 'the writer of "Scream" ' is a valuable calling card."
The buyout is just the latest in a series of canny if sometimes controversial marketing moves by Miramax, a studio whose enviable box-office track record has been built on aggressive promotion of its films. "The Crying Game," one of the studio's first breakout hits, was propelled in part by a "don't spoil the secret" campaign designed to make the film's surprise plot twist a must-see attraction.
Earlier this month, Miramax pulled off a true marketing coup, luring Hillary Rodham Clinton to the New York premiere of its Oscar contender "Shakespeare in Love." The first lady arrived on the arm of Harvey Weinstein, praising "the buzz" behind Miramax films, saying the company "had raised the bar for excellence."
But Miramax campaigns have also fudged the truth, especially with films where it was vital to create a perception of critical acclaim. In 1993, after the New York Film Critics Circle announced the winners of its annual awards, Miramax ran an ad for "The Piano" with the headline: "Winner! Best Picture." In truth, the best picture award had gone to "Schindler's List." It took a thorough study of Miramax's ads for readers to find a disclaimer, in tiny type, which identified the film as "runner-up."
This August, Miramax released "54," which starred Mike Myers as Steve Rubell, founder of Studio 54, the notorious '70s-era disco club. The film was widely panned by critics, including Times film critic Kenneth Turan, who dismissed it as "pathetic and lethargic." That didn't stop Miramax from running ads with a "rave" from The Times, saying, "Myers could get an Oscar nomination for his brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Steve Rubell!" The blurb wasn't from Turan, but from a party-goer who'd been quoted in a Times account of the studio's premiere party.
Marketing and movies are increasingly intertwined. The success of "Scream," which zeroed in on the perennial teenage fascination with sex and death, launched a new generation of horror films. With "The Faculty," Miramax tried to create a splash before the movie was released. As part of a marketing agreement with Tommy Hilfiger, the popular designer spotlighted the film's cast members in a series of Hilfiger fashion spreads that ran this fall in such youth-oriented magazines as Seventeen, Rolling Stone and Interview. Some of the actors wear Hilfiger clothing in the film, although a Miramax spokesperson said the on-screen visibility was a fashion choice, not a paid-for product placement.
"Scream" was also responsible for resurrecting Wechter's and Kimmel's writing careers. Wechter and Kimmel were both experienced low-budget film directors when they wrote the original "Faculty" script. Wechter made "Midnight Madness," a 1980 film starring Michael J. Fox; Kimmel had directed "Spaceship," a 1981 film with Leslie Nielsen. But more recently their writing careers had faltered. When their agent, Alan Gasmer of William Morris, sent their script out in 1990, he found no takers.
After "Scream," things changed. Gasmer was in his car when he got a call from Dimension's Granat. The executive was curious: Did Gasmer have any scripts about kids and aliens? Bingo! Dimension bought "The Faculty" the next day. For young moviegoers, the script seemed to have a catchy hook: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in a '90s high school setting.
The original plan was for Williamson to do a rewrite and direct the picture. But when he opted to direct Dimension's "Killing Mrs. Tingle" instead, Bob Weinstein brought in Robert Rodriguez, who had directed another Dimension film, "From Dusk Till Dawn." The original writers acknowledge that Williamson made a significant number of changes to their script. "He kept the basic story," Wechter says. "But he rewrote all the dialogue, made the teenagers more hip and created several new characters. Our script had one main hero, but his version has a group of kids, which gives it more of a 'Breakfast Club' feel."
Before the film began shooting earlier this year, Miramax approached the writers about giving up their claim on screenplay credit. After receiving the compensation offer, they agreed. Although Miramax didn't invite the writers to the film's Dec. 20 premiere, they went anyway, using tickets they got from their agent. They had a cordial conversation with Williamson, who said he hoped he'd been true to their original idea. "He's a nice guy, and he did a really good job with the script," Wechter says. "We have no illusions--this movie probably would have never happened without him."
They also bumped into Harvey Weinstein. "David was very bold," Kimmel says. "He went right up to Harvey and said, 'Hi, David Wechter, first draft.' Harvey seemed a little nervous, like he wanted to get away from us. He said, 'I didn't have anything to do with the movie--it was my brother, Bob.' "
"It's too bad Harvey was in such a rush," Wechter says. "Bruce and I wanted to tell him that we already have a great concept for the sequel if Miramax is interested."
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