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Greenlights turn red

Content concerns halt boom in film prod'n

HOLLYWOOD — Hollywood has slipped into a production coma — the worst within memory, veteran execs say.

Production slates are virtually blank as studios fret about release schedules and marketing plans in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The ambiguity over what to release has spilled over into the area of what to greenlight.

Strike fears earlier in the year also contributed to the paralysis. Having rushed movies into production, the studios find they’ve already allocated most of their money for the year and are thus thinking twice about moving ahead with new pictures.

Sony doesn’t have any pics skedded to move into production by year’s end. MGM has only one; New Line, DreamWorks and Disney have two each.

The count at Warner Bros., Fox and Universal is higher — three movies apiece. At Fox and U, that relatively larger number reflects those studios’ inability and/or unwillingness to stockpile product in the first half of the year.

In all, the nine majors will crank up only 16 films before the end of the year — compared with 68 fourth-quarter starts last year. That’s a precipitous drop, even considering that last year’s numbers were higher than usual, due to strike-fear stockpiling.

“We’ve just come off the heaviest production schedule in the history of the studio,” said Hutch Parker, production prexy at 20th Century Fox. “We in effect did a year and a half of production work in nine months.”

For the most part, execs say they don’t expect activity to pick up until after January. And while the physical production boom has hit a wall, even the development pace has become sluggish.

Reworking scripts

Fearing a prolonged strike, nearly all of the studios rushed to stockpile scripts earlier in the year. But laborious rewrites have been required for those hastily penned scripts, meaning a lot still aren’t ready for production.

Compounding that problem is sensitivity to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Material of all kinds is being vetted and either shelved, rewritten or put into turnaround.

Last week, for example, Sony delayed a production start on Jennifer Lopez starrer “Tick-Tock,” an actioner about an FBI agent’s frantic quest to identify and defuse bombs set to explode in Los Angeles malls. Originally skedded to begin lensing in December, the pic is moving to June.

“There are movies in development that we are not going to make, that would be inappropriate,” Col chair Amy Pascal said, “but ‘Tick-Tock’ is not one of them.”

Pascal explains that material changes are being made to the serial-bomber script, but she cautioned, “It’s ultimately more of a psycho guy on the loose than anything else. I mean, we can’t stop making action movies. What is important, though, is that we resist this emotional need to turn xenophobic and make the ‘foreigner as enemy’ picture.”

But even if studio execs wind up with quality scripts, that doesn’t mean their worries are over. Ongoing political tensions may make production schedules difficult, particularly if the film is to be lensed overseas. Finding actors and directors willing to lense abroad in an uncertain political climate is no small feat.

Safety concerns heightened

“Universal has made movies all over the world,” said the studio’s physical production head, Ron Lynch. “We are always aware of any kind of security issues which may be ongoing in other countries. But we live in a different world now. Our safety concerns are heightened,” he added.

“Shooting anywhere in a foreign location will be logistically challenging,” another studio exec said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to be much more aware of.”

Aside from “Tick-Tock,” other projects in development are being re-evaluated, even though their subject matter is tangential to the recent national tragedy:

  • The Fox 2000 actioner “Truck 44,” being developed for director Peter Berg, has been placed on hold because it shows firefighters in peril.

  • Revolution Studios is vacillating about “Boaz the Great,” in which Adam Sandler would play an agent of Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad.

  • Warner Bros. is agonizing about “Designated Survivor,” a disaster pic set in the nation’s capital.

Auds won’t notice

Audiences likely won’t notice the production slowdown, however. Exhibitors are ramping up for one of the most crowded holiday seasons in recent memory.

And, in the long run, even the fourth-quarter slowdown won’t be noticed at movie theaters. Companies like Revolution, with three pics starting by the end of December, will help pick up the slack, and the studios have been stockpiling films and rescheduling 2001 releases to ensure an even flow of product next year.

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