Can Joss Whedon Buy Back Goners?

There was an interesting claim in a recent Hollywood Reporter article about the screenwriter of Man on a Ledge that left some Goners fans eagerly wondering.

What saved Ledge was a WGA-required provision in Fenjves’ contract that allows the author of a script to reacquire the rights to unproduced original material at the five-year mark; it’s not a provision used very often, since most writers don’t have the funding to take back their projects, and the time period for reclaiming the material is short.

So, is this true? And, if so, is that five-year mark something specific to this particular contract, rather than a standard period? What’s more, just how “short” is the time period for reclaiming a script?

As it turns out, the Writers Guild of America has a page on its website dedicated to reacquiring scripts, and the above appears to be true. But six conditions need to be satisfied for a reacquisition attempt.

  1. Was the project theatrical?
  2. Was the project done under employment or, if it was a sale, were you a professional writer at time of sale?
  3. Was the project not based on any pre-existing material?
  4. Has it been AT LEAST 5 years and NOT MORE than 7 years since you last delivered material to the Company?
  5. Has the project never been produced?
  6. Is it currently not in active development?

Here’s what we know (or don’t know) about Goners in light of the above. Goners, of course, was a theatrical project, and the script, if I’m reading the copyright record correctly, was written as a “work for hire”. (That copyright record is dated March 3, 2005. Additionally, the “short form option” for the script, between Mutant Enemy, Inc. and Universal, was recorded with the copyright office on November 29, 2007, with a date of execution of November 2, 2007.) The script was not based on pre-existing material, has never been produced, and unless something secretly has changed is not in active development.

That last point is important, and likely factors into the criteria I skipped, that of the two-year time period starting at five years out, so let’s take a moment to look at Goners’ development process as currently understood.

As far as is known, Joss has not delivered a draft of Goners to Universal since sometime in 2007, when his then-latest was “not incredibly well-received”. By the middle of 2008, the project was known to have gotten back-burnered by the studio. As late as mid-2010, Joss had indicated that there’d been some interest expressed at revisiting Goners when he was finished making The Avengers.

So, back to the critical time period criteria. Based on the above (plus this), the last time Whedon delivered a draft of Goners to Universal appears to have been in 2007, which would make the start of the two-year reacquisition period 2012. This year.

In theory, then, under this particular provision of the WGA’s Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement, and if all of the above development and rewrite dates are correct, Whedon has access to a process for buying back the script, during the time period running roughly from late 2012 to late 2014.

The two wild cards in all of this, however, are: the aforementioned potential for revisiting the project now that The Avengers is nearing release; and, of course, money. In the case of the former, the almost inevitable success of that film could certainly reignite interest on the part of anyone who happily turns out to own a script penned by Whedon. In the case of the latter, that same success surely would yield no end of producers willing to help Whedon extricate a script in which he was still interested.

And that, in the end, appears to be the most critical issue: is Whedon still interested in Goners?

He certainly still was just a year and a half ago when he made those remarks about certain parties revisiting it. So, as near as I can tell and if all of the above dates are correct, beginning this year — a year which will see the release of The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing, and the production of In Your Eyes—on Goners the ball potentially could very much be in Whedon’s court.

Update: Any writerly types want to weigh in on whether or not the second reacquisition type mentioned on the WGA page in question comes into play here, based on the information related above about Goners?

Update: A note about the wild card of money: Variety reported at the time of the script sale in 2005 that Universal paid “seven figures” for it, which certainly helps reflect the Hollywood Reporter remark that “most writers don’t have the funding to take back their projects”.