Movies · News

Whatever Happened to the Movie Franchise Writers’ Room Trend?

Brainstorming blockbusters was a short-lived idea.
Sherlock Holmes
By  · Published on May 14th, 2018

In the fall of 2016, five years after we first heard there’d be a Sherlock Holmes 3, a team of writers was assembled to come up with a proper script. Robert Downey Jr., star and producer of the movie, said two years prior, “We want it to be the best of the series, so that’s a pretty tall order.” Therefore the best of the best, or at least dependable enough, were brought on board to collaborate on the script: Justin Malen (Office Christmas Party), Gary Whitta (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Tomb Raider), Kieran Fitzgerald (Snowden), and Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy), who served as leader of the team.

The result of their brainstorming is unknown, but apparently none of their ideas was enough to turn out a desirable draft. Last week, Sherlock Holmes 3 was back in the news as moving forward, and the script being used is by Narcos co-creator (and Species II co-writer) Chris Brancato. Not one of the members of the Sherlock Holmes 3 writers’ room. Brancato was hired last year, and in an interview with Live Mint in December, he revealed how he got the gig because Downey is such a big fan of Narcos. Maybe he worked off or with material that came out of the writers’ room, but at the moment he’s the sole credited writer for the sequel.

After the Sherlock Holmes 3 news was announced, I thought of writing about the death of the movie franchise writers’ room. And just when I was getting started, another relevant production had a similar announcement. On Friday, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Paramount is working on a G.I. Joe spinoff focused on the character Snake Eyes. Again, just one screenwriter — Evan Spiliotopoulos (Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast) — is named on the project. And again, he’s someone who wasn’t part of the writers’ room set up in 2016 for the Hasbro Cinematic Universe, which is to include the G.I. Joe series as one of its components.

That group, led by Akiva Goldsman, consisted of some the same names that would go on to brainstorm for Sherlock Holmes 3 — Perlman and Robertson-Dworet. The others were hottest of the hot and diversest of the diverse: Michael Chabon (John Carter), Lindsey Beer (Masters of the Universe), Cheo Coker (Luke Cage), Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther), Jeff Pinkner (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), Nicole Riegel (The Heydey of the Insensitive Bastards), Brian K Vaughan (Lost), and the team of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Spider-Man: Homecoming). In addition to G.I. Joe material, they were to work on future scripts for ROMVisionariesMicronauts, and M.A.S.K. movies.

Well, earlier this year, the ROM movie was finally put in motion, only now it’s being written by Zak Penn (Ready Player One). More recently, Allspark Productions, which is handling live-action movie projects for Hasbro Studios, was reported to have hired The Fate of the Furious helmer F. Gary Gray to direct the M.A.S.K. film. With that news, though, came no name as writer of the script. Presumably, the person eventually chosen or revealed as screenwriter for M.A.S.K. won’t have been part of Goldsman’s golden group either. Back in January, Goldstein told IGN that he didn’t think anything was coming out of that writers’ room for ROM or M.A.S.K.:

“Those are probably not likely to see the light of day, unless they’re moving on separate from us…It’s a funny thing. We spent three weeks in a room with a lot of talented writers. We broke 11 or so movies and, I don’t know, it just kind of went into the vortex. There’s been some leadership changes at Paramount, so it’s hard to say. Nobody’s contacted us about those.”

Not all movie franchise writers’ rooms have been so fruitless. In 2015, Paramount tapped Goldsman to lead a group tasked with developing a larger Transformers franchise, which also could eventually be crossed over with other Hasbro properties, most desirably G.I. Joe. That team consisted of Robertson-Dworet, again, plus Penn, Pinker, Beer, Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down), Christina Hodson (Unforgettable), The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, and the teams of Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man). And at least two features came to fruition out of their efforts.

One of the team’s scripts was for last summer’s Transformers: The Last Knight. Nolan and Marcum and Holloway wound up with the screenplay credits, while Goldsman joined the trio as one of the named writers of the story. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the writers’ room had input. The Last Knight is such a crazy movie with so much going on that it feels like a patchwork of too many ideas. Some good, some terrible. The whole thing is so ludicrously thrown together with its Transformers throughout history nonsense and its batshit robot butler and its too many human characters that it reminded me of the Key & Peele sketch parodying the brainstorming (“not brain-drizzling”) process for Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

At least Gremlins 2 — the script for which is credited to just one person, Charles S. Haas — is more brilliantly handled as a kind of self-spoofing smorgasbord of hilariously cartoonish horror comedy. Though it wasn’t financially successful. Similarly, the Michael Bay-helmed The Last Knight, the fifth in the series, wound up a domestic box office disappointment and even made the least amount of money overseas of any of the Transformers movies. Unsurprisingly, by the end of last summer, the franchise’s writers’ room was no more.

The other movie to come out of that endeavor still has yet to come out. Bumblebee, a prequel spinoff focused on the titular Autobot and set in the 1980s, is due this December. Scripted by writers’ room member Christina Hodson, it’ll be the first Transformers movie not directed by Bay (instead Laika’s Travis Knight is at the helm), and it is expected to be a lighter and smaller effort for the brand. Beyond that, Bay has teased there being more than a dozen other good ideas that came out of the teamwork of Goldman’s group.


But who knows what Paramount has cooking for the future of Transformers and whether the franchise will cross over with ROMM.A.S.K.G.I. Joe, and the rest of the Hasbro Cinematic Universe? There’s no sign of the third project that was to come out of the writer’s room, the animated, Cyberton-set Transformers One scripted by Barrer and Ferrari. Maybe after the disappointment of The Last Knight, the studio doesn’t want to remind audiences of that Transformers-spawning planet.

Cinematic universes themselves are collapsing all over the place, from the misfire of Universal’s Dark Universe franchise with The Mummy to the extended reaches of the current DC Comics based superhero series. And while writers’ rooms weren’t just for such broad-scoped crossover enterprises (see Sherlock Holmes 3), that was their main purpose. Cinematic universes mimic the serialization of television, and writers’ rooms have long been TV’s thing.

Ironically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t ever had a writers’ room in that regard. Instead, the franchise basically has a showrunner in Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige. And maybe there are others at the company who help steer the series and its various offshoots as well as the unifying pathways toward the Avengers movies and other crossovers. But the MCU doesn’t need a writers’ room because Marvel has plenty of ideas to source from in their own comics and can easily find great screenwriters and filmmakers to flesh them out as movies.

There’s also the Star Wars franchise, which has involved a story group for decades, as the movies spawned a slew of once-canon stories beyond what was on screen. There’s been a continuation of some of that continuity-based groupthink after Disney killed the expanded universe, but as we’ve been seeing from the likes of Rian Johnson, maker of The Last Jedi and a forthcoming original Star Wars trilogy, and we’ll be seeing from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, there’s space for outsiders coming in with or being assigned ideas for new phases of the Galaxy.

Considering Marvel and Star Wars are now dueling for the all-time box office records, every other franchise is still going to want to strive for their success and ape what they do to get it. But if cinematic universe attempts continue, they aren’t likely to have the sort of brainstorming sessions we saw rise in fashion a few years ago. Sure, film is a collaborative art and these days shareholders and marketing teams might contribute to ideas of tentpole releases, but the concept of movies made by committee no longer seems to apply quite as much to the script stage.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.