Film Studios Recast Writers’ Rooms

by The Wall Street Journal

Writers’ rooms have long been the creative engine of television. On most series, from “Game of Thrones” to “The Big Bang Theory,” several writers gather around a conference table to plan a season of a program and outline the narrative beats of each episode. Only then, with stories established, do individual writers or pairs of writers break off to draft scripts. By contrast, screenwriters for feature films have long labored alone, occasionally checking in with producers and studio executives about their progress. With each movie its own entity, no broader planning is needed. Even on high-expectation “tentpole” movies, sequels usually are written only after a film becomes a hit. But last year, 10 writers took over a soundstage once used to shoot the TV show “Glee” on the Paramount Pictures lot, filled it with toys, television screens and whiteboards, and turned it into their personal playground to imagine the future of “Transformers,” one of the industry’s most profitable film franchises. The creation of that writers’ room, followed by one this year to plan movies based on other Hasbro, Inc. toys, including G.I. Joe, Micronauts and M.A.S.K., signifies a dramatic shift in the entertainment business: the swapping of creative processes between film and television. “We are architects, hired to design universes and create mythology and then give you the plans,” said Akiva Goldsman, a veteran writer and producer who oversaw both writers’ rooms. Mr. Goldsman, who won an Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” has persuaded other top writers to join him in adapting seemingly cheesy Hasbro brands like M.A.S.K., a short-lived ’80s toy line and TV series about secret agents whose cars and trucks turn into weapons. Among those he attracted to this year’s Hasbro room are Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon and “Guardians of the Galaxy” screenwriter Nicole Perlman. “Getting out of my room and getting out of my head was a great change of pace,” Mr. Chabon said. Their work is a response to one of the most profound shifts in the movie industry in decades: the evolution from episodic franchises—in which one hit movie begets another—to “cinematic universes,” where a series of connected motion pictures are created years in advance. The gold standard for such efforts is Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios, which has released 13 movies that have together grossed $10.2 billion and all tie into one another, such as “Iron Man,” “Avengers” and “Captain America.” The shift reflects how much TV and cinema have changed places. Television, once known for generic sitcoms and cop shows, is now home to creative risk-taking aimed at small but loyal audiences. Movie franchises, on the other hand, are becoming episodic series aimed at broad global audiences. “They have in many ways inverted,” Mr. Goldsman said. Because it makes only superhero films, Marvel Studios does its creative planning internally, led by president and producer Kevin Feige. Executives at traditional studios who oversee a broader slate of pictures rely on outsiders to do creative work. Typically, writers are invited to pitch ideas or send in scripts they have completed. When trying to plan a Marvel-like series of movies, however, studios are assembling teams of writers and putting them to work as if they are creating a season of television. “You have to work with smart people and build it out,” said Marc Evans, president of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group. “It’s how audiences expect to see things now. Unless a one-off movie is the best thing ever made, people want their franchises.” Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures used a writers room for a coming series of films featuring monsters such as the Mummy, the Wolfman and Frankenstein. “Transformers” has long been Viacom Inc.-owned Paramount’s most successful franchise, with four movies, all directed by Michael Bay, that together grossed nearly $4 billion. But they came out every two or three years—an eternity in modern Hollywood—and the last one, 2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” was the lowest grossing in the U.S., signaling audience fatigue. Looking for a creative reset and ideas that could speed up the pace of releases, Paramount and licensor Hasbro hired Mr. Goldsman to assemble a group of writers whose experience spanned film, television and comics, as well as superheroes, thrillers and horror, to brainstorm new “Transformers” movies. Mr. Goldsman organizes the sessions and keeps the group on track, like a “showrunner” on a television series. As informal camp counselor, he is paid slightly more than the other writers, who all are compensated equally. Working on the former “Glee” soundstage, the group sat at a square table surrounded by “Transformers” statues, comic books, pinball machines, and more. The first two days were devoted to “training camp” to learn everything about the shape-shifting robots’ 32-year history in toys, animation and other media. Another day, work was halted so participants—evenly divided between men and women—could bring their children for Transformers face painting. “It was actually fun to be a writer,” Mr. Goldsman said. On white boards, the group plotted possible story lines about an alternate history of Earth, from the time of the dinosaurs into the future, that imagined Transformers playing roles during events like World War II. Artists in the room turned ideas discussed around the table into visual concepts by the next morning. The group spent three weeks assembling story ideas and then, with the blessing of Paramount and Hasbro executives, split up to write treatments, or extended story summaries, over the next few months. The studio chose one to be 2017’s sequel “Transformers: The Last Knight,” to be directed by Mr. Bay, and another for 2018 that will focus on the character Bumblebee. All the treatments and art were published, along with fake marketing materials, such as posters, in a limited-edition hardcover book printed for a coterie of insiders. This year, Paramount and Hasbro had Mr. Goldsman lead a similar room, on the same stage, to lay the groundwork for a set of movies bringing together five other Hasbro toys. After first figuring out why these previously disparate characters would interact, the group started laying the groundwork for a dozen potential films, figuring out on a whiteboard how the characters and plot points would interconnect. “We started with course details and then went through them in finer and finer detail until we had an internal chronology and outlines for each,” recalled Mr. Chabon. Some properties they adapted, like “G.I. Joe,” are well known. Others, like the magical wizards team, “Visionaries,” haven’t been in the public eye for decades. In the 1980s, all were the subject of television cartoons, which Mr. Goldsman and his writers tapped to spark new story ideas. One key change, he said, was adding 21st-century-style diversity. “If we came out of that room with one white male protagonist, I can’t think of who it is,” he said. Among the ideas they came up with were a “G.I. Joe” film set in World War II and a new version of M.A.S.K., the 1980s-era secret-agent series, that doesn’t feature the adult superspies seen in the cartoons but rather a multicultural group of youths in Detroit who come upon “magic technology” similar to what fans may remember. “That’s a story relevant for today, but if you remember the cartoon or the toy, we trigger your memory and you take a look,” Mr. Goldsman said. Brian Goldner, Hasbro’s chief executive, said the first few “Transformers” movies helped build toy sales from just over $100 million to about $500 million annually. The so-called Hasbro cinematic universe, if successful, could help expand or relaunch other toy lines. And by planning movies years in advance, he added, Hasbro can present ideas for its brands to shareholders, retailers and other partners. “We live in that world of five-year business plans, and we felt it would be great to connect partners like Paramount in that process,” the CEO said. In the past, studios often independently decided how to adapt properties they licensed and when to release movies about them, making it difficult to coordinate retail efforts. But Mr. Goldner said his company, which suffered a flop with 2012’s “Battleship,” wasn’t content to be a passive observer. Soon, Hasbro and Paramount will select the first few treatments from the second writers’ room to turn into full scripts, said Mr. Evans, and then will begin hiring directors to make them as well as other “Transformers” pictures. Paramount has earmarked dates for sequels well into the future, including a seventh “Transformers” movie to be released the Friday before July 4, 2019. Although the studio hasn’t figured out what the movie will be, Mr. Evans predicts “it will almost certainly come out of one of the ideas in the room.”