On Goners And Goldfish At SXSW

There has been some talk about, after ‘The Avengers,’ trying to resurrect it. I’m not sure what that process would be like.

At today’s conversation with Joss Whedon event at SXSW, there was an audience question about Goners. At this point, all we have is an incomplete transcript of the exchange via the Snarkmarket live coverage.

Audience: Whatever happened with Goners? The way you described Cabin in the Woods was sort of how you’d described Goners.

JW: Goners and Cabin were very different movies. [Exposition about the fate of Goners that seems complex and hard to summarize.]

Short story is, Joss felt yanked around by studios with Goners. He describes the feeling of constantly being jerked around as being akin to the experience of being a goldfish.

If at some point someone posts a complete transcription of this exchange, rather than Snarkmarket’s attempt to give the gist of Whedon’ remarks, I’ll post it here. In the meantime, some thoughts.

First, whoever asked the question likely was referring to the fact that in a recent interview about The Cabin in the Woods (don’t read until you’ve seen the movie) Whedon made an observation.

I think that’s the thread that’s going to run through all of my stuff: Nobody is expendable

That’s remarkably similar to something he said back in 2006 about Goners.

But it’s told on a very mystical scale and, in a way like everything I’ve tried to do including Buffy, it’s an antidote to that very kind of film, the horror movie with the expendable human beings in it. Because I don’t believe any human beings are.

As for Whedon’s description of the development process on Goners over at Universal, for which we currently have only the reporter’s “short story” version and not Whedon’s actual quote, it sounds mainly like a more blatantly stated version of the sense one gets from the slideshow of quotes over on Dear Universal, FREE GONERS (and scattered as well throughout the Development category here), so perhaps not entirely a surprise.

It’s not clear from Snarkmarket’s coverage if Whedon spoke only of the development process or also gave any indication of Goners‘ current status or potential for revival (or rescue), but it doesn’t sound like it.

Update: Thanks to The Playlist, whose coverage of the panel includes the following lengthy section on the Goners exchange, edited only for additional paragraph breaks.

When someone asked in the crowd about “Goners,” the 2005 spec script sold for “seven figures” to Universal, they asked if elements of the screenplay, which was said to have been a kind of widescreen horror epic, had been cannibalized for “Cabin in the Woods.” Whedon had described the movie as “Like ‘Buffy,’ but scary,” but said little else in the way of details.

None of “Goners” is in “Cabin in the Woods,” though.

“‘Goners’ and ‘Cabin in the Woods’ are very different movies. ‘Goners’ was sold to Universal through Mary Parent. She was the de facto producer of [big screen adaptation of his short-lived ‘Firefly’ television series] ‘Serenity.’ And she set up her shingle at Universal, so I thought it would be protect. But the new people that came in turned around and said, ‘No.'”

Whedon remains cautiously optimistic about the project: “There has been some talk about, after ‘The Avengers,’ trying to resurrect it. I’m not sure what that process would be like.”

He still sounds wary of the studio system that had treated him so poorly (“I think I come up with super-commercial ideas”), and “Goners” was certainly part of his entrance into the creative wilderness.

“‘Goners’ came after ‘Wonder Woman.’ And that was the kind of one-two punch that made me do ‘Cabin’ and ‘Dr. Horrible.’ I had been led to think that, well, sometimes you’re not naive, you’re a goldfish. But ‘Goners’ was, like ‘Cabin,’ about getting under the skin of horror in a big way, and I’d love to make it but I don’t know if I can suffer through the process.”

Image of goldfish courtesy Jon Culver via the specified Creative Commons license.

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”.

The Burden Of Not Being A Sequel

I just found another small Goners item from coverage of a May 2009 lecture Whedon gave at Wesleyan University while this site was offline.

He noted during this presentation, with a completely straight face, that one of the executives who had read the script had told him that they liked it but that “it has the burden of not being a sequel”. Joss found that statement to be a really depressing commentary on the way Hollywood is falling apart, and believes that such decay is increasing at an alarming rate.

There’s nothing in this specifically to suggest whether said executive was criticizing or merely observing, but it perhaps provides some context for the seemingly endless studio notes/rewrite process that at one point had been underway at Universal.

The Light Of Day

Was just reminded of another item that of course didn’t get linked here during this site’s absence. Back in January of this year, Blastr listed seven Joss Whedon projects they imagine will never be seen, including Goners on the list.

Goners, written after Serenity wrapped, sounds a bit like the way Buffy started, with a female character, Mia, who encounters horror in the real world but combats it with a strength she’s learning to use. Words Joss has used to describe Goners include “dark,” “darker” and “horrific.”

Joss has said he envisions Goners as the antidote for torture porn and called it “inspirational.” If anyone could merge heartfelt positive emotion with mutilation, it would be Joss.

Joss announced this “fantasy thriller” in September 2005. I’m writing this in January 2011.

What happened?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what pushed Goners to the back burner, but other projects obviously got in the way. However, someone at Universal Studios had real intentions to make this movie: an official website, gonersmovie.com, was created but was later taken down without comment.

Goners’ IMDB page once stated that the movie would be released in 2010; currently, it says the movie will be released in 2011, which is unlikely, considering Joss’ current commitment to The Avengers.

However, Joss was quoted as saying that he wants to return to Goners after he’s finished with The Avengers. Whether it happens remains to be seen.

One thing in the above that’s decidedly wrong: the referenced website was a fan site, not an official one. Hopefully Blastr‘s contention that Goners is a project that will never happen will prove to be just as wrong.

So It Can Be Free Again

Since the last time this site was active—nearly three years ago now—Whedon has said a couple of more things about Goners.

Most recently, he had some lengthy remarks about both the movie itself and its status at an appearance at the Sydney Opera House in August 2010.

Goners was typical of my career. I wrote it, was very excited by it, had a lot of heat, sold it… into the vault never to be seen. Yeah, I was talking about that when Serenity was going up because I was going to make it at Universal, but, err, that didn’t really happen did it?

Not really sure what to say about it. It’s about a young woman with “special powers” and she gathers a group of people with “special powers”, they conflict, in the end they work together. Wait a minute, I do suck. Wow, it’s weird to realise that in this room.

No, it probably was as close to myself, what I’ve been describing of myself today, as anything I’ve written, because the lead character Mia is painfully shy and very much alone and it’s a movie that is all about being alone, which is ultimately the thing which I’m writing about all the time. And it’s also a horror/action/super awesome thing.

It may not be dead, It may not be entirely dead. The producers that were attached to it still are attached to it emotionally, and the regime at Universal has changed, and I actually met with them recently and they were saying, “You know, you’ll be finished with the Avengers in ten or twelve years, so why don’t we revisit this.”

So, keep your fingers crossed.

Before that, back in a September 2009 interview with Blastr (still SCI FI Wire at the time), he made something of a plea to the studio.

What about Goners?

Whedon: I wish I could say something about Goners. Universal, release Goners into the wild so it can be free again.

I use these two updates as a way to re-launch What Is Mia Made Of, in the hopes that with the wide-ranging attention and mainstream appeal of the Avengers, the long and frustrating banishment of Goners into develoment hell might, at last, in the coming years, come to an end.