Movie Buddies Rake It In

LOS ANGELES-One of the Fox network’s fondest hopes during this bleak TV-pilot season is a one-hour “dramedy” tentatively called Splitsville, about a pair of former paramours who continue to write a relationship-advice column together after they’ve broken up. The show is co-written and co-executive-produced by Abby Kohn, 32, and Marc Silverstein, 31, and is based on their relationship.

But what exactly is this relationship? Ms. Kohn and Mr. Silverstein are not just friends, and they are no longer lovers. They are “writing partners”: a uniquely Hollywood relationship that is partly pragmatic, partly creative, and rife with fluid and enigmatic personal contours.

“We kind of, like, complement one another,” Ms. Kohn said, calling from the Splitsville set in San Diego. “It’s been great-a lot of times, a comfort. We have a lot of the same friends, and we go to the same parties. And even when we’re not working on a project, we end up talking three times a day.”

Partnership’s casual yet intense pooling of literary egos can be utterly bewildering to the Easterner, who believes writing to be a private, solitary and somewhat embarrassing act. Here we learn that l’écriture is not a 4 a.m. soul-plumbing in the sickly glare of an I.B.M., but rather banter and smoothies in the blistering sunlight outside the Urth Caffé on Melrose Avenue.

“When I’m back East and say ‘my partner,’ people are often assuming that I’m a lesbian,” said writer Lori Gottlieb, who with partner Kevin Bleyer has projects with Showtime and Oxygen. “But here you can totally say ‘my partner’-that’s like de rigueur .”

And though partners are nothing new to showbiz- I Love Lucy , the first multi-camera TV sitcom, was team-written by Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr.; there was the writer/performer twin act of Mike Nichols and Elaine May; and brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski are behind the current Matrix comet-those doubling up today said the grim Hollywood economy has generated an exceptional number of couplings. Work can in theory be done faster and more efficiently; it’s also easier on the nerves to make the “go-see” rounds à deux . Meanwhile, cost-cutting producers-always on the prowl for a volume discount-like securing two heads for the price of one.

A spokesman for the Writers’ Guild of America said that the organization didn’t maintain any statistics on whether partnerships are on the rise. But this town is simply crawling with examples of young and old, like Anna Lotto, 26, and Juliet Walker, 30, who share an airy duplex with a balcony in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles (envision Williamsburg with palm trees). They cook dinner together, attend peace rallies together-“we’re super anti-war,” Ms. Lotto said-and jointly dote upon a pet rabbit, Rabies. They finish each other’s sentences, are in constant cell-phone contact and describe themselves as “codependent.”

Last Valentine’s Day, the pair got a call from their sort-of agent. “He was like, ‘Listen, I need you to come up with a sketch packet for the Tom Green show, right away,'” Ms Lotto said. “We were basically going to have to work all night. So we both canceled our dates with our boyfriends and polished off a bottle of wine together. We were so happy.” Their boyfriends are no longer in the picture; the Tom Green show got shelved; but Ms. Lotto and Ms. Walker, who met while working for an Internet company and won $500 in a contest for their pilot, Dysfunction Junction , are closer than ever before. “I can’t even imagine doing it on my own,” Ms. Lotto said. “It’s such a hard business, and it’s so full of rejection. It feels better to have someone go through that with you.”

And when the crumbs of validation fall, it’s sweeter to have a helpmate alongside to help catch them. Brothers- cum -writing-partners Matt Eddy, 30, and Billy Eddy, 27, recently sold their untitled frat comedy about a cappella groups to Disney for a low six figures (standard industry parlance for $100,000), with About a Boy ‘s Chris and Paul Weitz attached to produce. They applied the finishing touches to their opus while locked in a cabin on Mammoth Mountain. “It’s a funny homage with a little bit of heart, along the lines of Bring it On ,” said Matt Eddy, who attended Columbia.

“In New York, you get an idea of what writing means, and it’s very literate and it’s very isolated,” he said. “Here, it’s just so alien; it’s just so different. Hollywood is about, for better or worse, ‘impacting’ a project.”

Currently “impacting” projects, like little rows of molars, are fraternal partnerships (Wachowski, Weitz, Farrelly, Coen); partnerships based on first names, like the Davids and the Drews (“they both used to be actors and they both were called Andrew, so they go by ‘the Drews’; kind of annoying,” said one half of a rival partnership); even ménage à trois –esque triplet teams (though it’s generally agreed that if you have more than three members, you have crossed some kind of line and are officially a “troupe”). Women partnerships, like Jennifer Konner and Alexandra Rushfield ( Undeclared , What I Like About You )-“sort of the girl writing team that you go to if you want dark, edgy comedy” is the conventional wisdom-are much in demand in a male-dominated industry.

But the hottest configuration of all is probably the male-female partnership, with its bland, equalizing promise to represent both “viewpoints” in the eternal war between the sexes. Ergo, Splitsville .

Ms. Kohn and Mr. Silverstein met at the University of Southern California’s graduate popular-film program (known for breeding “savants of commercialism,” sneered one of their Ivy-educated counterparts). “One day you get to school, and it’s the day everybody starts picking partners,” Ms. Kohn said. “It’s like this mad dash, like musical chairs, and nobody wants to be left standing alone.” They made a thesis-type film together called Fairfax Fandango , a romantic comedy about a hipster girl who gets obsessed with her Orthodox Jewish neighbor. After graduating, they sold Never Been Kissed to Fox on a pitch; it became a hit starring Drew Barrymore. Along the way they dated, got engaged, broke up and kept working without missing a beat, often in her house in the Larchmont area (a direct analog of the Westchester Larchmont), 10 minutes from his near the Beverly Center.

Ms. Gottlieb, who is in her 30’s, has partnered with Mr. Bleyer, a former writer for Politically Incorrect , since last summer; they met when he was researching her appearance on the show to promote Stick Figure , her memoir of childhood anorexia. “Once we committed, I sort of had intimacy issues, like, ‘Oh my God, I just signed on-for the rest of my career!'” she said. “I think we sort of looked at each other and realized that we had different things that were marketable about each of us,” Ms. Gottlieb continued. “We are sort of like Will & Grace , except Kevin’s heterosexual. We have that Nichols and May thing going on: He’s West Coast, I’m East Coast-whatever you want, we can provide it in the meeting. One plus one is more than two.”

A graduate of Yale, Ms. Gottlieb said that the relationship often confuses people outside of Tinseltown. “My literary agent was like, ‘Do you really want a partner?'” she said. “You know: ‘You have a career as a writer, why do you need another writer?’ To that world, it’s a very foreign concept.”

Mr. Bleyer, 31, was located a mere six blocks away in the “Beverly Hills–adjacent” part of the city. “She’d say, ‘God, do you know what I feel like?’, and I’d say, ‘Raspberry iced tea,'” he said. “And she’d say, ‘That’s exactly what I was thinking’-and I’ll want one, too!”

Meanwhile, up in Laurel Canyon, Harry Elfont, 35, lives just down the road from writing partner Deborah Kaplan, 33. Like Ms. Kohn and Mr. Silverstein, they also have a perkily titled romantic comedy under their belt ( Can’t Hardly Wait ), were also romantically involved (“You have to get that out of the way before you start writing,” Mr. Elfont said) and sold a pilot about it (to NBC-it was called Unromantic Comedy and didn’t get picked up). They’re both married-and both to actors-but seem in some sense seem more wedded to each other. They grew up, unknowingly, 10 minutes away from one another on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Their birthdays are four days apart.

“I’m always so in awe of the people who work alone in a vacuum, without someone to bounce stuff off of all the time, to work through all the story line and the outlines,” Ms. Kaplan said. “I don’t know how someone does that alone.”

Mr. Elfont agreed. “The fact that Deb’s working on pages and I’ve gotta be finished because I know she’s gonna be finished-that’s a huge thing,” he said.

But despite the obvious advantages posed by partners, there remain some holdouts.

“I’ve certainly had ideas with friends of mine that are writers, where we’re like, ‘Oh my God, we should totally write that’-but in all of those instances, we’ve all backed away from it,” said Emily Fox, 30, a screenwriter who went to Yale and writes “dramas with comic overtones” in the Cameron Crowe tradition. “I mean … I don’t kid myself that I’m in this because of my sparkling prose, but …. ” Ms. Fox, interrupted while browsing monogrammed linens on eBay from her West L.A. apartment, compared having a partner to having a running buddy. “The most fundamental advantage of it is that you have another person to whom you must hold yourself accountable,” she said. “You can’t completely slack off.”

Michael Karnow, 36, had a long-term relationship once, with a pal from St. Paul’s and Harvard named Lance Khazei, but things didn’t work out. “For a couple of years after that, we didn’t really hang out that much, and it was actually really cool, because last year we started hanging out again,” Mr. Karnow said from West Hollywood. “I would say that my own way that I work in a partnership has matured … like the ability to communicate, or whatever that stuff is.” He’s now working with Zak Penn (victim of a nasty and widely reported falling-out with former partner Adam Leff, with whom he penned The Last Action Hero ), but theirs is not a partnership, Mr. Karnow hastily clarified; rather, he is working on three different projects with several different people.

And this is precisely the kind of “sleeping around” frowned upon by Jeffrey Gordon, founder and president of Writers Boot Camp, a sort of young, kicky alternative to Robert McKee’s famed “Story” course that is based in Santa Monica (20 percent of students enroll as partners, including a few sister teams).

“There’s a tendency in L.A. to partner with a lot of people, so that it gives the appearance of activity and a lot of irons in the fire,” Mr. Gordon said. “But that is usually a sign of somebody abdicating authority over their own material. It really creates a problem when people break apart. What do you say: ‘I wrote the vowels and they wrote the consonants’? It’s like the commitment problem and having a roving eye. You get enamored of a new idea, then once you get involved in it, you find it has as many problems as the other one. So in a way, I’m preaching commitment.”

Jason Mayland, 31, a Stanford graduate and Insomnia Café habitué who has a “heist comedy” called Can’t Get Arrested currently in development, took the partnership-as-marriage parallel to its logical conclusion. “You really have to work at them to make them productive,” he said, “and half of the time they end.”

“When we were just a couple of kids putting on garage theater, it was just fun,” said one woman who had an acrimonious breakup with her partner after a successful feature and an unpleasant “triangle” with a director. “But once you have a million dollars involved and producers, everything is higher-stakes-more money and more public. It was like a new part of our vernacular when we came out to L.A. and said, ‘This is my writing partner’-those words brought a host of images and associations that neither one of us had any clue about or any experience with.

“As half the team that produced a film that people responded to, I’m salable, and in a way personally I feel it’s more efficient,” she added. “But my only fear is that, until I have that product that has been received as well as that movie was, people are still like, ‘Well, when they partnered they were great-but solo, they seem to be floundering.'” Movie Buddies Rake It In