H’w’d script story: Art imitates art

The spec script and pitch market — to paraphrase Preston Sturges’ “The Palm Beach Story” — is not just dead, but decomposing.

Decent source material is at a premium, so the industry, in true navel-gazing fashion, is looking to whatever is working today to define its new direction.

After all, the accepted wisdom in Hollywood is that if something works, imitate it.

Except it’s never that easy.

Agents, execs and producers alike complain that there are “crap scripts” out there. So what are the agents selling? Or better yet, what are studios buying?

A sampling of industry movers and shakers reveals that the dominant desire in Hollywood is to find an event and franchise pic, despite its potentially high cost. But apart from these hoped-for “Men in Black”-style bonanzas, the most bandied about concepts in development circles include:

Sci-fi Westerns

Clones of “The Rock”

Romantic comedies

Character-driven comedies

Real-life stories gleaned from books and magazine articles

Anything with aliens

Anything with John Travolta

Musicals, especially if Travolta is attached.

When Miramax hit the horror-mania jackpot last December with Wes Craven’s “Scream,” it sent a shlockwave through the rest of the industry.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to get their hands on hip, in-your-face fright pics that could be made on the cheap and would gross $100 million from teens dying to see teens dying.

In March, TriStar nabbed Terri Hughes’ and Ron Milbauer’s comedic fright-spec “Idle Hands.” U just picked up the same scribe pair’s “Thirteen” as a pitch.

In general, agents bemoan the studios’ timidity with edgy material. “The studios have a real desire for pre-made, pre-packaged goods,” says a prominent lit agent, “because now they say they’re actually going to start making movies at a lower price.”

Starved for scripts

“Studios actually need product desperately,” says an agent at one of the big three percenteries. “A lot of stuff is being put into turnaround. We have very few scripts going out because we have pretty high standards.”

Some insiders say it doesn’t matter what the material is as long as Travolta is attached. “Everyone is desperately looking for a musical for Travolta,” says another agent. “If you can find the next ‘Grease’ or ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ everyone would love that.” Indeed, John Woo, who just directed Travolta in “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off,” has indicated an interest in a musical.

Woe without Travolta

But in the current Hollywood economic structure, when that $70 million Travolta pic loses Travolta, it then becomes a $35 million film — and writers are then asked to “write down” action or special effects scenes.

“Studios are trying to figure what the hell to do,” says UTA agent Jeremy Zimmer. “They can’t afford to make movies with two gross (participation) actors, a gross director and a gross producer, so they’re trying to figure out new economic models, and the material helps to dictate that.”

Lately, any pic that performs above and beyond the box office call of duty is immediately the cause for dozens of pitches and specs that borrow its premise to be immediately submitted for exec consideration.

Consider the mega-volumes of similarly themed scripts that hit the agent-studio circuit after the success of such pics as “Pulp Fiction,” “The First Wives Club” and “Waiting to Exhale.”

“After ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ every single bad version of that movie came across my desk,” says one New Line Cinema executive. “And there was a period after ‘Scream’ when that happened.”

And now, in a year where Men are in Black and everyone wants to attend their Best Friend’s Wedding, the industry is responding accordingly.

After Fox’s success with “Independence Day” and during the strong pre-opening buzz on Sony’s “Men in Black,” Universal picked up “Cowboys and Aliens,” and 20th Century Fox snagged “Ghost Riders in the Sky” — two projects similar in tone to Sony’s darkly comic alien pic.

Romantic comedies are another studio staple that seem to be in hot demand as soon as one succeeds. Two years ago, it was “While You Were Sleeping.” This year, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” has the industry watching in awe.

“Most of what we hear and see are comedies,” says David Vogel, president of Walt Disney Pictures. “Broad comedies, romantic comedies, silly comedies. But yesterday, I passed on something that was a big action-adventure thing. I don’t feel there is any change in the general kinds of material.”

After building a comedy corps featuring Chris Columbus and Harold Ramis, Fox — which in the past has had success with the “Home Alone” series and laffers like “Mrs. Doubtfire” — now must find material to feed its funny guys.

And evidenced by the fevered market for magazines and books, projects based on real-life people and events are increasingly sought-after. As UTA’s Zimmer puts it, “True-life is less expensive than fiction in terms of how you make a movie.”

Dark dramas are not high on studio lists, unless there is the attachment of a major star (who also is willing to comply by agreeing to also do something else more commercial).

Still blockbusting

But that old staple, the blockbuster, is still high on everyone’s list, despite the fluctuating B.O. performance of such pics. If a studio can earn $200 million for a “Men in Black” (as many have predicted it will do), then it can expect to rake in bucks for at least one if not two or three sequels (see: “Batman” ad nauseam). And, lest we forget those magic words: ancillary rights for such areas as foreign, merchandising and music.

So everyone seems to be scouring development coffers for a franchise.

At Sony, for example, the word was put out by senior staff to look for event and franchise pics. While that may seem an obvious thing to look for, Columbia and TriStar were telling their execs that the development coffers were empty.

Franchise this …

And some say the percenters will claim anything is a franchise if it will make a sale. Moans one beleaguered development executive: “They could pitch you a story about a little retarded girl and say it’s a franchise.”

But there’s a big difference between what’s being bought and what ends up on the screen. About a year ago, heist movies were all the rage, says one insider.

Reincarnations of pics like “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Ocean’s Eleven” — both of which are being talked about for remakes — were shopped and bought all over town. As yet, not a single one has been made …

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