You could call it Rocky redux: A struggling actor writes a screenplay and turns down lucrative offers for it unless the studio lets him star in the film as well. In 1976 the scenario ended with Oscar nominations for both acting and writing for Sylvester Stallone but in most cases, getting enough leverage in Hollywood to sell a screenplay and get a role in the film can leave an actor punch-drunk from shadowboxing.
Suddenly, though, there's a growing list of up-and-coming actors who are tired of fighting for dreary parts in dreary scripts and are taking control of their careers by writing their own movies. Peter Berg (who was Linda Fiorentino's sex toy in The Last Seduction) recently landed a mid-six-figure deal with Paramount for the action film Furious George, in which he'll costar with Michael Keaton. In November, actors Matt Damon (School Ties) and Ben Affleck (Dazed and Confused) also picked up a high-six-figure deal from Castle Rock for the drama Good Will Hunting. To sweeten the package, the company also offered a blind commitment to pay for their next script.
''I feel like I've turned a huge corner in my career,'' says Berg, 30, who's suddenly become very busy juggling rewrites and production meetings not to mention the rigorous shooting schedule of CBS' medical drama Chicago Hope, whose cast he just joined. Berg found what he calls his bit of ''magical Hollywood luck'' across the street from his Santa Monica home. In 1992, when he hit a snag while working on his screenplay, a thriller about an alcoholic park ranger trying to foil an assassination plot, he walked across the street to ask for advice from a neighbor. Said neighbor Michael Schiffer, a screenwriter whose credits include Lean on Me and this May's highly anticipated Crimson Tide liked the idea and agreed to cowrite the script. ''Peter's a great actor and he damn well deserves a shot on something he creates,'' says Schiffer. They got the script to producer Gale Anne Hurd (Safe Passage), who helped sell it to Michael Keaton, who in turn helped sell it to Paramount with Berg as costar and Schiffer as executive producer.
''Bind yourself with someone much more powerful than you are, befriend them and have a partnership,'' says actor-screenwriter Chazz Palminteri. That's the strategy that worked for him when he tried to sell his play, A Bronx Tale, in 1989. Palminteri spent seven months fending off offers of up to a million dollars for the rights before Robert De Niro became interested and helped Palminteri get what he wanted the showcase part as Mafia boss Sonny and control of the screenplay. ''I used to call De Niro my nuclear missile. When things got tough, I just pressed the button,'' he says. ''Sometimes you need that one person who believes in you.''
When Damon, 24, and Affleck, 22, made the studio rounds to pitch Good Will Hunting, a drama about a troubled Boston kid who gets recruited by the FBI to be a cryptologist, they only had themselves. ''It wasn't our names that helped us sell the screenplay,'' Affleck says. ''We certainly weren't in Gump,'' adds Damon. Nevertheless, their agents sent them on a whirlwind week of meetings to try to impress executives on their own. ''The only thing we knew about pitch meetings was what we saw in The Player,'' says Damon. The childhood friends even dared to paraphrase a line from the movie and use it in a meeting: ''We're looking for a home.''
They found one. ''When I read it, I loved it, and I didn't know they were attached to star (in the movie). I have a feeling if I knew, I might have been a little skeptical,'' says Castle Rock production president Liz Glotzer, who bought the script less than a week after getting it. Damon and Affleck attribute their success to low expectations. ''Our hope was that we'd scrape together a million bucks (to make it independently),'' Damon says. ''We're not fooling ourselves. We've got a lot of work to do on this. We just don't want to be a one-hit wonder.''
Damon and Affleck's film will end up with a modest-for-Hollywood budget of around $10 million, while Berg and Schiffer's Furious George may cost $40 million. But money was never their object. ''I'd say we wrote a screenplay because we had read so much bad work,'' says Damon. And Berg, who just wanted ''to write a really great supporting role for myself,'' admits he wasn't prepared for the double stress of acting and writing. He warns those who might want to try this at home: ''Actors talk about the pressure of waiting to hear if you have a job, and that's a lot of pressure. But it's nothing compared to the pressure of selling a screenplay.''