Much of the folklore around Orson Welles’s directorial debut centers around how the film was blackballed and buried by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who provided much of the inspiration for main character Charles Foster Kane. Less known is how the film got onto Hearst’s radar early enough for him to crush it: an early leak of the screenplay to Mr. Hearst, by no less than Welles’s collaborator on it, Herman J. Mankiewicz. According to Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Raising Kane,” “Mank” was so proud of his script that he sent a copy of it to his friend Charles Lederer — a fellow screenwriter and great wit, yes, but also nephew of Marion Davies, mistress to Hearst (and herself the loose inspiration for the character of Susan Alexander). Lederer showed it to Davies and Hearst, who passed it to his lawyers, who got into gear. “It was probably as a result of Mankiewicz’s idiotic indiscretion,” Kael writes, “that the various forces were set into motion that resulted in the cancellation of the premiere at the Radio City Music Hall, the commercial failure of Citizen Kane, and the subsequent failure of Orson Welles.”
Script leaks occurred occasionally but infrequently in the pre-Internet era, but once a screenplay could be uploaded or downloaded at the click of a button, it became a huge headache for filmmakers. Take, for instance, Scream 2, the highly anticipated (and quickly produced) sequel to Wes Craven’s 1996 sleeper hit. Production for the film began a mere six months after the first film’s release (it was in theaters less than a year after its predecessor), which was already pushing things. But when an early draft of the script showed up (and was widely disseminated) online, director Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson knew they were in trouble. With production already underway, Williamson frantically rewrote the screenplay — particularly the ending, which originally revealed four different people as the Ghostface killer. The revision altered that to two killers (only one of them among the original quartet), rather ingeniously using the leaked identities as a red herring.
Warner Brothers and DC spent a decade (and untold millions) trying to relaunch the Superman franchise, an endeavor that, at various points, included Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Smith, McG, and Brett Ratner. Oh, and J.J. Abrams, who was still best known for Felicity and Alias when he was hired to write a Superman screenplay in 2002. His was the active script when Ratner and McG were on the project; both filmmakers ultimately left the project over difficulties in casting and other logistics. But they were done no favors when the script landed in the hands of Drew McWeeny, a film writer currently at HitFix, then writing as “Moriarty” for Ain’t It Cool News. McWeeny got a look at the Abrams script (titled Superman Flyby) in September 2002, and promptly eviscerated it. “You’ll believe a franchise can suck!” he announced in his widely read AICN script review, calling the screenplay “a disaster of nearly epic proportions.” The toxic buzz the AICN post generated was never officially blamed for the punting of Abrams’ script, but it certainly didn’t help; when Bryan Singer came on to the project, he brought in his own writers and started fresh.
Moriarty strikes again. In 2008, Ain’t It Cool ran a tip about the ending of the latest, forgettable, Cameron-free installment of the Terminator franchise. The tipster had gotten a look at the shooting script for McG’s Terminator: Salvation and reported a conclusion certain to make fans furious: that the film would end with the death of John Conner (played by Christan Bale), whose skin is placed over that of the cyborg Marcus (Sam Worthington) so that he may remain alive symbolically and the resistance can fight on. Yes, that was really how they were going to end the movie. Director McG initially denied the validity of the leak, but later fessed up that they’d not only contemplated that conclusion, but another, even darker one. However, when the fans lost their minds, they rewrote the film to its current form.
In April 2011, a full year before the release of Joss Whedon’s all-star blockbuster assemblage of Marvel’s superheroes, the movie site Obsessed with Film received an email from an anonymous party who claimed to have a hard copy of the script for Group Hug, the production title of The Avengers. The source (who reached out to several film sites) was hoping to sell the 129-page screenplay, and when asked, provided pictures of the script — which included the Marvel logo and the watermarked name of Samuel L. Jackson, the original owner of the script. “When they sent me the new version of the script,” Jackson later explained, “I was shooting a film in Toronto and my assistant copied it from the email (and printed it) in the office somewhere. And by the time we got to Albuquerque someone had stolen the script out of the printer and put it online for sale with my name on it. I didn’t know printers had memories. And apparently my assistant didn’t either. So when [my assistant] printed my script out, it was still stuck in there.” Marvel and Disney took the theft very seriously, and the thief was eventually caught before the full script was leaked (precluding the need for rewrites).
When Ridley Scott’s kinda-sorta-but-not-really Alien prequel hit theaters last summer, anticipation couldn’t have been higher — and disappointment couldn’t have been greater. Though it earned a mountain of money and some good reviews, fans were generally underwhelmed by the messy mix of pre-mythology and existential fumbling, to say nothing of the shortage of aliens. A few months after the film’s release, an earlier draft of the script (titled Alien: Engineers) showed up online, a bit of a frustrating development, since it looked like a scarier, ickier, and far more enjoyable film than the one they eventually made. It was the work of Jon Spaihts, who was the key writer on the project before Damon Lindelof came on board; he confirmed the script’s authenticity on Twitter shortly after the leak. Now it’s up to some enterprising YouTube filmmaker to bring it to life, yes?
Five years elapsed between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar winner There Will Be Blood and its follow-up, last year’s The Master. Part of that lapse was Anderson’s own pace — he’s never been one to rush from project to project — but part of it was in the difficulty of finding financing for his subject matter, as The Master was rumored to be a thinly veiled attack on Scientology (which has its share of defenders in Hollywood). Midway through the film’s climb to the screen, a film blogger named Forizzer got his hands on the script (which was then untitled) and posted a review on his blog. Some were skeptical, but Forizzer’s review was remarkably accurate; there are certainly some scenes that didn’t make the cut, but the film he describes is pretty much the one Anderson made, and the sample script page he posted (above) as verification is definitely an early draft of the powerful scene in which Freddie first submits to “processing.” But since Forizzer’s review was light on spoilers (and, let’s face it, it’s not exactly a plot-heavy picture anyway), it didn’t do much to harm the filmmaker, who had bigger worries on his mind.
The Fifth Estate
It sort of seems like a given that a film about Wikileaks would have to deal with a leak of its own. And sure enough, that’s what happened early in production of The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s dramatization of the rise of Julian Assange and his organization: somebody got a copy of the script to Assange, who denounced it as “a mass propaganda attack against WikiLeaks, the organization (and) the character of my staff,” as well as “an attack against Iran,” for good measure. The Fifth Estate is slated for release in November, so we’ll judge for ourselves then — and see if Assange’s attacks on the film do any lasting damage.
Throughout its troubled history, Michael Bay’s proposed reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been met with wailing and gnashing of teeth by fans of the original cartoons and underground comic. Objections to the jettisoning of such basic elements as the “mutant” part of the equation led Paramount to put the production on hold and back away from its original December 2013 release date; a couple of months after that temporary shutdown, the film’s original script leaked, and fans went bananas. “It’s worse than anyone could have imagined,” reported fan site TMNTnotTANT, while TMNT co-creator Peter Laird commented, “I think all true TMNT fans should be grateful to the new ‘powers that be’ that they did not allow this wretched thing to go any further.” Producer Bay soon jumped into the fray, insisting that this was a “first draft” from before he even came on board (though the dates and math suggest otherwise), so just cool out, bro, his Ninja Turtles is gonna be awesome. Cowabunga?
Deadpool is, it seems, one of literally hundreds of Marvel comic book characters with feature films in various stages of development. The character (played by Ryan Reynolds) appeared in a supporting role in the forgettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine; soon thereafter, Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were tapped to write a full-on Deadpool vehicle. And then, in October 2010, it leaked. For once, though, the response was overwhelmingly positive; Cinema Blend’s Josh Tyler ran a glowing review, and buzz was good. But Fox Entertainment Group went on the offensive, not only pulling Tyler’s review, but threatening legal action against a screenwriter who made Deadpool and other scripts available online. However, Reese and Wernick say the script will still be made in something resembling its current form. Reese told SlashFilm this week, “It leaked and we couldn’t do anything about it and for a minute we were appalled and then the reaction was great, so we were excited and now I guess it doesn’t really matter.” Chalk it up as a rare occasion where a leaked screenplay actually helped get a movie made, rather than torpedoing it.