For many, the opening of Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie last weekend was a true shocker. Not because it’s a staggering work of comic genius; even Dimension Films chief Bob Weinstein admits, ”It’s not like plot was the overriding thing.” What was stunning was that the $19 million Airplane!-style send-up managed to scare up $42.3 million at the box office, setting all sorts of records: the highest-grossing R-rated debut; the year’s second-biggest opening (behind Mission: Impossible 2); and the largest opening ever for a film directed by an African American. Says one rival studio exec, echoing many: ”It’s as stunning an opening as there’s ever been.”
Two years ago, screenwriters Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg — whose 1996 Spy Hard spoofed James Bond flicks (and starred Leslie Nielsen, the deadpan master of the genre) — had an idea for Scream if I Know What You Did Last Halloween. At the same time, Shawn and Marlon Wayans, along with writing partners Buddy Johnson and Phil Beauman, were working independently on the similarly themed Last Summer I Screamed Because Friday the 13th Fell on Halloween.
Sensing strength in consolidation, Dimension snapped up both projects (which poked fun at its own Scream trilogy and Columbia’s I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise), and handed the Seltzer/Friedberg script to the Wayans brothers. ”Both scripts had funny points, but we favored the Wayans script a little more,” says Weinstein. (After Writers Guild arbitration, Seltzer and Friedberg also received writing credits.) Says Eric Gold, longtime manager of all three Wayans brothers and a producer on Scary Movie, ”There were some structural things that were helpful in the other script.” The Wayanses had also been working on an alternate version of Scary Movie, which, like their 1996 Miramax gangsta spoof Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, predominantly featured black characters. ”The colorless one was the one that fit into pop culture,” Gold says. ”There’s nothing ethnic about the [Scream] genre, so there was no reason to take it in that direction.”
But while the Wayanses were merrily typing away, Bo Zenga, one of the credited executive producers, felt he was being slashed out of the picture. According to a lawsuit he filed on July 7 — the day the movie opened — against Brillstein-Grey (which represents Seltzer and Friedberg and received a producing fee), Zenga says he guided Seltzer and Friedberg through the rewrite that ultimately sold the project to Dimension, on good faith that he and Brillstein-Grey would be equal partners. But once Dimension bit, Zenga states he was told by Brillstein-Grey that he was to make his own deal with the studio, a slight he says cost him a percentage of what should now be a very lucrative backend. ”Those of us who are in this business all know that we make multimillion-dollar deals on a handshake,” Zenga says. ”One can only keep their end of the bargain and hope that their partner has the decency to keep theirs.” Responds Brillstein-Grey attorney Bert Fields: ”No one denies that one should honor one’s word, but no one gave [Zenga] their word that he was going to be a 50-50 partner…. He made his deal with Miramax…and now that the movie looks like it’s going to be huge hit, he wants more. Successful pictures often attract that kind of attention, unfortunately.”
Others are hoping that success merely begets more success. Lions Gate recently acquired I Know What You Screamed Last Semester, starring Tom Arnold and Coolio, set for release later this year. Lions Gate copresident Mark Urman is cautiously optimistic about riding Scary Movie‘s bloody coattails. ”It’s tricky when two films cover similar terrain,” Urman says. ”Do you rush and piggyback? Overall, it’s very encouraging.” But, he allows, many of the films spoofed by these movies ”seem to be satires even when they’re not, and you’re not sure how much ribbing they can stand.”
Weinstein, for one, may be planning to rib some more. While he won’t admit to any specifics, he does say, ”When has Hollywood ever not followed up a successful film with a sequel?” As for the Scary Movie tag line that promises ”No mercy. No shame. No sequel,” Weinstein laughs:””We have our marketing campaign. ‘Look — we lied!”’