Studio Olympics: No perfect scores here

Studios constantly rate talent, but how does talent size up the studios? Daily Variety has asked producers, directors, agents and others involved in the filmmaking process to rate the majors.

Which studio responds quickest to script submissions? Who flashes thegreenlight fastest? Which business affairs departments are mired in muck, and which merely flow like molasses?

Here’s how they replied, starting with the studio considered most responsive.

Disney

“Disney responds faster than the other companies,” the head of a major talent agency said. “I also find that on the top level, they are more accessible than the other studio heads. They definitely play the agents well.”

Because Disney is perceived as having a narrow range of interests, “they know immediately whether a submission will fit into their plans,” a top producer said. “When it comes to the green light, Disney is again the fastest.”

A seismic example: Michael Hacker and Jeffrey Miller submitted their script “Ironmen” on Jan. 10 to Disney production VP Mireille Soria, who said she would push it through quickly. Four days later, Disney biz affairs said an offer would be made the next workday, Jan. 17. Before dawn that day, the massive earthquake hit L.A. Still, as aftershocks sprinkled dust on desks everywhere in Los Angeles , water-flooded Disney reps called back by Jan. 21 saying the duo was now $ 325, 000 richer — and also apologized for not closing the deal faster.

But Disney’s conveyor-belt process comes with a top-heavy bureaucracy. “There are good, smart people at Disney,” a producer said. “But these young execs over there have been Disneyfied — they cannot distinguish between important, less important and unimportant.”

20th Century Fox

The Pico lot got high marks for approaching material head-on and closing deals swiftly. Many put great stock in exec production VP Michael London and recently hired exec production VP Dylan Sellers.

One top agent pegs Fox as an outfit that in all areas of business was “very upbeat and on an upswing curve,” with a sound business affairs department as one of the most appealing features.

But as with Disney, detractors are frustrated by what they perceive as an ossified channel of communication. “I’m not wildly impressed with the leadership or speed of their decision-making process,” says one producer.

Many also feel studio management has a hard time harmonizing the current slate with higher ambitions for A-list-directed blockbusters. “Fox’s frustration is that they said they’d get big directors for smaller pix and it didn’t happen, ” says one source. “(Fox chairman) Peter Chernin has been hit with a reality check: A big director won’t do the middle-of-the-road movies.”

MGM/UA

The house Frank Mancuso is building gets kudos for doing lunch all over town in search of quality material.

One producer says the present vibe in town about MGM/UA is positive and “different from earlier MGM/UA times when you knew in advance when they were building an executive Titanic.”

UA prexy John Calley gets credit for making filmers and producers feel at ease when submitting and negotiating.

Adds a producer: “MGM/UA has a lot to prove, and Calley and (MGM prexy Mike) Marcus are getting their hands into all the material that gets in there. They all get back to you very quickly.”

Recent UA hires, including exec production VP Rebecca Pollack and production VP Jeff Kleeman, were credited as tireless script scouts. Ditto for MGM production VP Elisabeth Seldes.

But many said big stars will have to appear on the slate soon for the community to again take properties to Santa Monica. A top agent added he’s unsure what MGM/UA execs are looking for.

Warner Bros.

The Burbank giant is still the place most yearn to take their potential superstar projects, hoping to tap into the A-list talent, big on-lot producers, smart execs and deep coffers. Nobody, respondents agree, does star-driven, high-end pictures better or markets them slicker.

On the other hand, one producer says Warner spent too much on acquiring projects last year instead of developing in-house, and so now is responding and greenlighting slowly.

Studio chairman/CEO Bob Daly and prexy/chief operating officer Terry Semel, whose steady hands control the green light, even seem to take a perverse pride in letting favorite projects germinate for more than five years.

Others say Warner is willing to play the spec script market like a Vegas high roller but moves into development at a snail’s pace, and the process is painful from there on. “(Production prexy) Bruce Berman and his baby moguls are star-driven,” a top agent said.

Medium-size projects often fall between the cracks.

Still, as one agent concluded, “Warner may be the toughest studio to deal with but also makes the most money.”

Paramount

Because of the ongoing battle for ownership of the studio, most are reluctant to assess Paramount’s response time and general business tone. Even so, studio toppers get high marks for being disciplined and responding quickly in a tight situation.

“Even in this environment, (motion picture group chair) Sherry Lansing doesn’t beat around the bush,” one producer said of the motion picture group chairman. “She’ll let you know exactly what she feels about your project.”

Production prexy John Goldwyn, production VP Donald Granger and senior production VP Michelle Manning are mentioned as fast, confident movers.

But the QVC/Viacom fistfight for the studio is blurring the rules of the submission process. And some critics say Paramount has a parallel scuffle in the junior exec ranks.

Several sources add they would likely choose to sit out the takeover battle before bringing material to the studio execs.

Universal

With production giants like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis on the lot, respondents say Universal is still one of the best places to take a high-concept, high-budget property. But, they add, be sure to have a package in your pocket.

“I find (MCA motion picture group chairman) Tom Pollock and (U production prexy) Casey Silver to be very responsive,” one source said. “They’re from the old Lew Wasserman ‘I’ll tell you now’ school of filmmaking. But out of all the majors, I would have to say, don’t ever go in there without a major star.”

Among Universal production execs who received praise for efficient responses and quick follow-ups were Tom Craig and Hal Lieberman.

But other respondents say it’s hard to get a reading on what kind of material the execs want; and some say management has a tendency to reverse course as the green light flickers on and off.

A talent agent calls Universal “a disappointment. They’ll get excited about a deal but never seem excited about a project. They’re still not in focus after all these years.”

Columbia/TriStar

The two Sony banners, united under Col/TriStar chairman Mark Canton and motion picture group prexy Jonathan Dolgen, are credited with having execs who read and respond to a wide variety of material. Col worldwide production prexy Lisa Henson, exec production VP Amy Pascal and TriStar prexy Marc Platt get top marks from several sources. TriStar production prexy Stacey Lassally is also mentioned as a strong card.

Another source points out that both outfits throw lots of money on the spec market. And several sources expect Columbia to emerge with at least one high-visibility action franchise in 1994.

Still, Columbia and TriStar come in last among most respondents for buying and greenlighting.

One agent said Columbia especially was “in business affairs hell” with “plenty of enthusiasm on top, but they just can’t seem to close the deal.” This hesitation was a problem even before the early January departure of TriStar Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy, the agent added.

With recent corporate shakeups on the Sony lot, one agent said, “from now on, Jonathan Dolgen is also gonna be a tough cookie on the budgets. The feeling among the Columbia execs is that you gotta get it perfect to get it past Lisa Henson and into the production pipeline.”

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