Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Truly Trivial: What billion-dollar movie franchise did James Cameron NOT create, but want a writing credit for?

Cover of Cover of True Lies
So James Cameron's Avatar is on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie in cinema history, displacing the previous record-holder of 12 years, James Cameron's Titanic. That Cameron guy sure has a knack at the box office; factoring in Terminator 2 and True Lies, Cameron's last four major motions pictures have raked in a little over $4 billion -- and that's before you count ancillary merchandising, home video, and television rebroadcast profits. It also ignores the added tally of the original Terminator, The Abyss, and Aliens, all of whom were arguably superior movies -- aesthetically speaking, if not financially -- than Cameron's more contemporary cash cows.

What's funny about Cameron's success is that, for all his ability to push the visual envelope and expertly depict even the most pedestrian of storylines (*COUGH*Titanic*COUGH*Avatar*COUGHCOUGH*), he's begun to develop a rep as the guy who steals all his ideas. The most famous example is the Terminator franchise, which owes great steaming piles of mea culpa to one Harlan Ellison, who just happens to be one of the most iconic sci-fi scribes of the 20th century. The Terminator shared a number of explicit plot points and story ideas with a couple of classic Outer Limits episodes written by Ellison: "Demon With a Glass Hand" and "Soldier".

Now, Ellison is infamous for being both contentious and litigious -- he earned as much notoriety for quarrelling with Gene Roddenberry, for whom he wrote arguably the greatest original Star Trek episode ever, "City on the Edge of Forever", than he did for his actual writing -- so it's little wonder that Cameron found himself taking some heat from Ellison over The Terminator. What's surprising is that Ellison's case was strong enough that Cameron caved, and the Terminator film and franchise now appear with the following phrase in their credits: "Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison."

If the Ellison affair was an isolated incident, we'd be apt to let it go and probably even chalk it up to Ellison being easier to buy off than fight off. But there have been questions raised about the unacknowledged inspiration for Avatar, too. No, we're not talking about Dances With Wolves, though that parallel is explicit. Poul Anderson's novella Call Me Joe follows the story of a paraplegic who connects his mind to a genetically engineered lifeform to explore a harsh planet and then ends up going native. Sound familiar?

Here's where it gets really funny. There's another billion-dollar movie franchise that Cameron wanted to direct but for which he couldn't secure the legal rights. For once, lack of ownership actually stopped Cameron from making the movie, even if it didn't stop him from writing a script treatment for the property. Moreover, when the movie finally got made -- and became an international phenomenon -- there were some very vague similarities between Cameron's script treatment and the finished product, so much so that Cameron felt "slighted" that his previous work wasn't acknowledged. Ironic, isn't it. So, you gotta ask:

What billion-dollar movie franchise did James Cameron NOT create, but want a writing credit for?

Spider-Man. Seriously. You can read Cameron's script treatment for the Web-slinger right here.

Back in 1985, Cameron talked Carolco -- the company for whom he'd made The Terminator  -- into buying the movie rights to Spider-Man. Carolco agreed in 1991 Cameron wrote the above treatement to modernize Peter Parker -- and create a rather Terminator-esque revamp of the villain Electro -- complete with Spidey dropping f-bombs, sexing up Mary Jane atop the Brooklyn Bridge, and growing organic web shooters instead of building his own.

There was just one problem: Sony already owned the rights to a movie version of Spider-man when Carolco "bought" them, and Sony is a much bigger opponent than Harlan Ellison. Cameron tried to get Fox to pitch in and pay Sony off, but instead the wall-crawler's rights were entangled for almost a decade. Sony finally won out and hired Sam Raimi to make his blockbuster version of Spider-Man, which debuted in 2002. (Cameron had long since given up and decided to make True Lies and then Titanic, which seems to have worked out for him.)

Oh, and Raimi also had Parker develop organic web-shooters rather than build them -- an idea that Cameron would have liked credit for. Quoth ComicBookMovie:
"When asked why he didn’t get a writing credit on the film, Cameron responded: 'I’d say that wasn’t terribly polite of them.' Nonetheless, Cameron doesn’t harbor any ill will against anyone for the whole ordeal.

Unlike other Spider-Man writers who waged unsuccessful battles via the WGA over their contributions, Cameron never put up a fight for his name to appear on the film. Thanks to Titanic, he was a very wealthy man who could afford to forgo the potential residuals. 'I didn’t feel that injured…slighted, but not injured,' he said."
There's just one problem with Cameron's "slight" --  he didn't come up with Spider-Man's organic web shooters. The first modern Spider-Man movie script was written in 1985 by the creator of The Outer Limits (a show we know Cameron watched), Leslie Stevens. Cameron had access to this script and several others during the ownership fiasco, when multiple studios alternately joined forces and merged scripts while trying to secure Spidey's movie rights.

Moreover, most all of the "explanations" for Raimi's Spider-man's powers -- organic Web shooters, tiny finger-talons that allow for wall-crawling, and the gene-splicing rather than radioactive origin of his powers -- bare striking similarities to Spider-Man 2099 as conceived by Peter David in 1992, back when the 1991 Cameron Scriptment was still under wraps.

Put another way: Cameron wasn't the first to come up with organic Web shooters, nor was he the last. He just thinks he was. But, then again, Cameron's notions of originality and idea ownership aren't exactly the same as everyone else's -- even if they qualify as Truly Trivial.