Is Men in Black III a total oddity in the studio world or merely the next step in the lineage of films like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and Iron Man, which famously went into production without solid scripts in place? Men in Black III started production last November, but shooting started with only part of the script fully in place. A hiatus was built into the production, officially to make the most of New York tax incentives and weather conditions, but in reality more than half the script was still not finalized.

Things were meant to get back into gear last month, after Jeff Nathanson spent the hiatus getting the rest of the script knocked out. Then that hiatus was extended until the end of March and David Koepp was brought in to deal with the lingering script issues. Now the clock is ticking and Sony is in the very unusual position of having the first act of an unfinished script in the can. A new feature looks into the long, weird development of Men in Black III and suggests that conflicting personalities are turning an ungainly project into something that teeters on the brink of real failure.

THR has an extensive piece on the strange production of Men in Black III. While it doesn’t directly offer reasons as to how the film has gone into production with less than half a script locked down, it does point some accusatory fingers.

Will Smith is said to have ” become very enamored with aspects of screenwriting,” and wanted changes to the Etan Cohen script that got the project moving for real. That would put Will Smith in the company of other megastars like Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, who are both noted for having more than the usual amount of script approval. Usually, however, the project would never get rolling without his approval on a final script, even if changes were going to be made down the line. The official line is that Sony feared New York’s tax breaks would be eliminated at the end of 2010, so the film started production before that dealine. (The tax breaks did not go away, as it turned out.) More likely is that everyone was in the same place and on something vaguely like the same page, so Sony pulled the trigger while the opportunity was there.

So the idea was to shoot the first act of the film in 2010, then take that planned hiatus, polish up the complicated time-travel parts of the script, and get back into it in February. But as one ‘former studio chief’ is quoted, “If [Will Smith] wasn’t satisfied after it’s been years in development, how are you going to fix that at Christmas?

Blame is laid at the fact that the film features a complicated time-travel plot, but like the tax break excuse, that rings a little hollow — more to the point is that getting everyone to agree on the way to approach those ideas has been causing the problems. Indeed, some of the THR article reads like a hit piece on producer Walter Parkes, who is compared to Salieri and is said to have a contentious relationship with Barry Sonnenfeld. David Koepp reportedly took the gig rewriting MiB III on the condition that he never had to speak with Walter Parkes.

Sony continues to maintain that the film will open in May 2012 as planned, and that the expense incurred  by the delays will be offset by tax breaks. THR says the budget for the film will go over $200m. That’s a serious gamble as MiB II took only $441m worldwide. To make a buck MiB III will probably need to pull at least $500m after all is said and done. (Advertising, prints, exhibitor cuts, etc — though licensing could offset some if not many of those factors.)

We’ll never root for a studio disaster — there’s no reason to delight in seeing a whole lot of hard work and money flushed away — but can’t help wondering if Men in Black III will end up being bronzed as a new cautionary tale for studios rushing films into production. The Pirates sequels and the many other films hampered by the writers’ strike (Transformers 2, for example) dashed into production in what seemed like a heedless way at the time. MiB III makes those projects look positively cautious. If this film ends up being a wild success I can only imagine what it might do to damage the already very tenuous relationship between screenwriting and big studio tentpoles.

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