Recycling still rules, survey shows

Hollywood’s biggest hits stem from writers’ pitches. Recycled ideas are on the upswing. Fewer stories are being put into development.

In the summer now ending, “The Sixth Sense” demonstrates just how profitable an original script can be, but a look at the top pics from last year shows that Hollywood is recycling more old ideas than ever.

These are the main conclusions of a Daily Variety survey of the 50 top-grossing live-action releases of 1998 — an analysis aimed at determining where Hollywood gets its source material.

Even though the studios’ voracious development machines have become as moribund as Dan Quayle’s presidential campaign, a huge number of movies are still getting made.

The trouble is we’ve seen — or read — most of them already. Only 20 of the 50 top grossing pics in ’98 were based on original scripts or pitches. The remaining 30 — that’s 60% — were culled from novels, plays, TV series, previous pics or other published material.

The survey also reveals:

  • Pitches, which are often criticized for being the lazy executive’s best friend, accounted for only 10% of the 50 pics — yet three of the top four films released in ’98 were pitch-based. Though there were only five in total last year, they were an impressive five: “Saving Private Ryan,” “Armageddon,” “The Waterboy,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Urban Legend” together amassed $700 million in domestic grosses, making pitches the biggest moneymaking category of the lot.

  • Original screenplays (specs acquired on the open market or studio writing assignments) barely edge out books as the lead category, with 15 specs comprising 30% of the top-50 grossers.

  • Although studios have been shuttering their New York development offices en masse over the past year, books are the second-most-popular source, with 28% originating from novels and nonfiction books.

  • Only 20% of the top 50 pics were sequels, remakes or TV spinoffs. However, given the town’s growing interest in film libraries, that figure is sure to increase in coming years.

  • In terms of genre, there was no clear victor. Action, drama and romantic comedy were the three most popular, with eight pics each. There were seven sci-fi pics, seven comedies, six thrillers, four horror pics, one war film and one foreign-language acquisition.

  • Hollywood’s tendency to avoid the R rating is paying off. Seven of the top 10 pics were PG-13, while 15 of the top 20 were PG-13 or PG. However, the highest grossing film of the year, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” was an R.

Originality pays

Only half of the 20 top-grossing pics were brand new. But when originality pays, it pays big. The four highest-grossing titles of the year (“Ryan,” “Armageddon,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “The Waterboy”) consisted of three pitches and one original.

It’s being proven again this summer, with the two biggest sleepers — “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Sixth Sense” — both based on original ideas.

The lion’s share of the 50 titles, even those where the studio claimed to have completely reinvented the wheel, were based on icons or ideas that had huge pre-existing awareness — among them “Dr. Dolittle,” “Godzilla,” “The Mask of Zorro” and “Mighty Joe Young.”

Most observers believe that Hollywood will stick to rehashing well into 1999 and 2000, given its current predilection for cost-cutting. Universal Pictures, for example, had a complete moratorium on buying new material for much of 1998. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought relatively little during the first half of 1999.

Every studio has been revising its bloated development slate, to see if some of the properties that have been languishing untouched for years can be dusted off and put into production.

Companies such as Miramax and New Line have also aggressively pursued projects that their rivals put into turnaround, in the belief that they can find strong material and put it into production with minimal development.

More pitches

The new climate is having some unexpected side-effects, such as an increase in the number of pitches.

“I’ve heard twice as many pitches this year than I did in 1998,” said one producer. “I’m not saying that they were all set up, but I believe that agents are telling their clients to develop pitches, because they are cheaper for the studios to buy.”

While pitches can consume more time and money in development than scripts, studios see them as a lower-cost alternative — at least upfront — to high-profile spec buys. In addition, pitches tend to be high-concept ideas that execs can easily justify to their superiors as commercial projects.

Cutbacks will also encourage the studios to further mine their film and TV libraries for material. Several deals struck this year, such as the co-production pact between Miramax and MGM, reflect this new mantra.

Anticipated sequels for the year 2000 include “Shaft Returns,” “Mission: Impossible 2,” “Rugrats II” and “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.” Classic TV series continue to inspire Hollywood: Sony is mounting a feature version of the 1970s TV series “Charlie’s Angels” and Warner Bros. is toying with an adaptation of “Starsky and Hutch.”

Hollywood’s austerity may further spur synergistic business dealings between a studio’s film and publishing interests, such as Miramax’s launch of Talk Media. This theoretically enables the studio to avoid paying hefty upfront fees to literary agents and third-party publishers.

Hollywood’s increasing globalization was reflected in 1998 — the industry depended on Europe for much of its source material. “You’ve Got Mail,” a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic “The Shop Around the Corner,” originated as a play by Hungary’s Nikolaus Laszlo. Disney re-made its ’61 pic “The Parent Trap,” which was based on the novel “Das Doppelte Lottchen” by Germany’s Erich Kastner. Also from Germany, Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” inspired Warner Bros.’ “City of Angels.”

Meanwhile, Miramax hit the jackpot by acquiring the Italian comedy “Life Is Beautiful” from writer/director/actor Roberto Benigni.

“The Horse Whisperer” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” were both from novels written by Europeans; “Shakespeare in Love” was a true transatlantic co-production, from writers Marc Norman (U.S.) and Tom Stoppard (U.K.)

But, not to be outdone, Japan provided Hollywood with its most hyped icon of 1998 — “Godzilla.”

(Oliver Jones, Leonard Klady, Charles Lyons and Nick Madigan contributed to this survey.)

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