Nets' script shortage fuels trend

In response to network cost-cutting, several Hollywood studios are absorbing the risks of developing shows inhouse without the guarantee of a web buyer.

Warner Bros. TV, Columbia Tri-Star TV, Paramount Network TV and Imagine TV are all funding the development of multiple scripts themselves, and some of the studios will produce entire pilots without a network home.

Network shopping

Paramount, for instance, is planning on making a couple of two-hour drama pilots, the Caribbean-set “Islands” from Tony Yerkovich (“Miami Vice”) and “Dreamland” from Donald P. Bellisario (“JAG”), as long as the studio can cast them. After the pilots are made, Par will shop the projects to various networks.

Imagine TV and Touchstone are developing two projects inhouse, including the first TV series created by Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland, screenwriter of “L.A. Confidential.”

Warner Bros. TV also is developing two or three drama projects without a network buyer, something the studio has never done before. And Sony is expected to greenlight several scripts and at least one pilot before a network is attached, as it did last season with the pilot “Grown-ups,” which didn’t get a pickup.

Boycotting NBC

The studios are absorbing more development risks because the market for network scripts has shrunk dramatically this season. The major studios are boycotting NBC because the web will not commit any development money to a project unless the studio grants co-ownership or prenegotiated license fees that extend for the entire life of the show.

ABC also slashed its development funds this year and is ordering fewer scripts, and several other webs wrapped up drama script-buying season early. Studio sources say that with the money they are spending on overall deals, they want their writers working, and so they are funding script development themselves.

Risky business

Such a trend is risky for the studios because networks are not as vested in and passionate about projects they don’t develop themselves.

“When has that been successful?” asked one top network exec. “They must be frustrated, so they are telling writers to write, and someone will buy it if it’s great. But if I haven’t met a writer, it’s hard. I’d never buy a blind script without meeting the writer and discussing the project.”

Hoping for failure

Studios are hoping that the projects that NBC is developing inhouse or has bought from indies will fall through, and so the studio sellers will be in a better position to negotiate with attractive scripts or pilots in hand. They are hoping that with fewer scripts, ABC will not be happy with its choices and will be desperate to find something better.

“A lot of these projects we tried to pitch, and the networks said, ‘That’s interesting. If you had come to us earlier, we would have bought it, but we’re closed now,’” said one studio source. “Part of it is a gamble, but if a network is developing six cop shows, and they read the scripts and are not that excited, we’ll be there with a cop show and a piece of talent attached. It’s something a little more tangible to sell than just an idea.”

Studio execs say they will mitigate the risk by making mainly two-hour pilots that can be distributed direct to video, overseas or as part of a movie package if the nets aren’t interested.

Process changing

The move toward inhouse development isn’t entirely a reaction to the current network funding shortage, studio execs contend. The entire TV development process is under examination, and studios are searching for newer and better ways to market their writers to the webs year round.

Tony Krantz, CEO of Imagine TV, said that he’d like to take fresh and finished material to all the networks at once rather than have a project passed over at one web and seen as damaged goods by other networks.

“It gives us more leverage,” he said. “We’re banking on the fact that networks made quick decisions early on, and a lot is going to fall out.”

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