Why 35 screenwriters worked on The Flintstones movie

The messy history of The Flintstones movie led to a change in the way writing credits on movies were arbitrated...

Few people have too many fond memories of 1994’s The Flintstones movie. Notwithstanding the excellent live action take on the cartoon’s opening credits, and the pretty pitch-perfect casting, the rest of the film was a bit of a mess. Some, as I’ve learned in the past, have warmed to it a lot more than I. But for all the box office dollars it pulled in on its original release, The Flintstones was critically savaged, and for once, I was on the critics’ side at the time.

In the build up to the movie’s release, however, there was something else quite remarkable about The Flintstones, and that’s the sheer number of writers fighting to be credited on the project.

Having umpteen writers on a film is nothing fresh, of course (Catwoman, notoriously, had up to 28 people working on it). The dark arts of the Writer’s Guild of America, which arbitrates over who gets final credit on a film, are unknown to all those but the people within the organization’s inner sanctum. But it became clear fairly quickly that some serious work would be needed to get the number of credited screenwriters on The Flintstones down to a number that would fit on the bottom of the poster.

Thus, when the movie was released, the final credit went to Steven E, de Souza, Jim Jennewiein, and Tom S Parker. That said, some early cinema standees, before the final credits were locked down, were listing seven or eight writers.

Ad – content continues below

The origins of The Flintstones movie actually dated back to 1985, when de Souza (best known for the mighty Die Hard) was hired to pen a screenplay, with the idea being that Richard Donner would direct. At the time, James Belushi was being mooted as the potential big screen Fred Flintstone. De Souza’s screenplay didn’t fit what the studio wanted, however, and in came Mitch Markowitz, who penned a script that Richard Donner wasn’t keen on.

Donner, in all, would oversee five scripts, with eight writers involved.

At this stage, in came Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, who snapped the rights up for themselves in the late ’80s. Eventually, director Brian Levant was hired, a passionate fan of the original series, riding high off the back of his then-recent hit, Beethoven. He arrived with a blank slate, as Spielberg had rejected the Flintstones scripts that had been written at that point.

Levant’s background was television primarily, but one of his first moves was to hire Gary Ross (who would go on to direct Pleasantville and the first The Hunger Gamesmovie) to put together a draft. Levant didn’t like what he read, and eventually, he moved towards a writer’s room approach to shaping the script. He pulled together what he described as “an all star writing team” of talent, from TV shows such as Happy Days and Family Ties. “This is a sitcom on steroids,” Levant told Entertainment Weekly back in 1994. “We were just trying to improve it.”

The hive mind of eight writers came up with their draft, delivering it in early 1993. But that too failed to get the film its green light. Levant arranged a further four roundtable sessions of a similar ilk, adding different writers each time. At one stage, City Slickers and Parenthood co-writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel came in to do two days’ work on the movie, and trousered $100,000 for their trouble.

Reports vary on just how many writers in all worked on the project, but the common consensus tends to sit between 32 and 35 in all. Only one of them was a woman, Dava Savel (who was writing, or would write, episodes of Ellen and Will & Grace, moving onto producing on the latter show). At the time, she told Entertainment Weeklythat “I have no idea if I have one line in there. Can you believe it?”

Ad – content continues below

Eventually, a script was cobbled together that earned The Flintstones movie its green light, and the cast came together. John Goodman (who Spielberg had imagined in the role of Fred since he made the film Always) led the cast alongside Rick Moranis.

When it came time to submit final credits, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in January 1994 that Universal was looking to name nine people. Story credit was set to go to Michael Wilson, and screenplay credit to Brian Levant, Al Aidekman, Cindy Begel, Lloyd Garver, David Silverman, Stephen Sustarsic, Nancy Steen and Neil Thompson. But this jarred with the WGA. Its members were keen to impose a ceiling of three writers, or writing teams, as a maximum number who could be credited on a movie. Levant’s original eight withdrew from the arbitration process.

By then, it was widely known just how many pens had contributed to The Flintstones‘ script of course, and it’d be a regularly cited fact in reviews of the film (think lines along the theme of “35 people couldn’t even think of one funny joke” then rinse and repeat). Even then, one of the three who did ultimately receive credit, Jim Jennewein, wasn’t happy. “We had no contact with the script after Levant came,” he said. “Everyone thinks drama needs a single unifying voice, and I think the same holds true for comedy. Screenwriting is a real craft, and movies are different from TV.” This was, I should note, before the days of HBO’s acclaimed scripted dramas.

The WGA would refine its arbitration rules in the wake of The Flintstonesmuddle, limiting credits to those deemed to have contributed a set amount to the final screenplay for a movie. After all, each credit on a movie costs a studio money down the line, with writers generally entitled to residuals.

As for the film itself? Critics be damned: it earned over $340m at the global box office, at a point when that was deemed a tidy sum. That said, whilst director Brian Levant would return to direct prequel movie Viva Rock Vegas over half a decade later, the cast was changed. And four writers would be credited with penning that one…

Ad – content continues below