Studios are taking a hard line on deals

Scribes fought long and hard for their future during the WGA strike. Little did they know how tough negotiations would get once the strike ended.

Already flush with projects that could fill their film pipeline through 2010, studios are taking a hard line on deals, refusing to pay most writers above their quotes, if that. The market has gotten so competitive — and jobs so hard to come by — that established scribes in recent months have been reduced to assignments one-half or one-third their going rate.

At this point, “there are 50 to 100 writers that are still getting the deals they were always getting,” says J.C. Spink of Benderspink management-production firm. “For everyone else, it is getting harder, harder, harder.”

A top manager-producer says studios invoke every reason except the recent strike for their tough negotiating stance. “They say things like, ‘It’s a new environment.’ Or ‘The landscape’s different,’ ” he says.

Whatever the reason, midlevel scribes repped by his firm have been especially hard hit.

“The middle guys are getting killed,” he says. “I had one guy who makes $800,000 –an established guy — and they wouldn’t go above $250,000 for him.”

Worried about paying his mortgage and the prospect of another stoppage, the scribe took the deal, accepting a fee he hadn’t taken in 10 years.

Helmers have also been affected, although because they tend to be involved in fewer projects, the clampdown isn’t quite as noticeable.

Scripters can still get a nice payday from original material — especially if there are multiple bidders — but even the most in-demand writers are having a tough time setting up deals in this environment.

It’s even more of a buyer’s market on the TV side, where the curtailed pilot season has translated into fewer gigs for even the most sought-after scribes.

“It all comes down to competition in the marketplace,” says Paul Young of Principato-Young, who notes the market for specs has remained strong — one of his clients recently sold a spec for $1.2 million — but on the TV side, “there is downward pressure across the board.

“Even with in-demand writers, you’re having trouble making deals.”

No one knows when, or if, the belt-tightening will end. The pre-strike buying frenzy surely contributed to the current environment, but there are a number of other factors that have helped create the buyer’s market. Among them: the growing number of nonstudio productions, wobbly economy and flattening DVD sales. Drawn-out actor negotiations are contributing to the cautious mood around town.

“Everybody is in a terrible funk,” admits one top production exec at a major. “Agencies, studio execs, we’re like a parent with kids who want to spend something and we say, ‘Do we have to? Do we need this?’ ”

Every decision is subject to more scrutiny than before, he says. “There’s no luxury. We’re saving our money for the big movies.”

A tenpercenter says writers have to be willing to walk away in order to get any raise in pay these days. He says a writing duo who created a major tentpole comedy franchise had to threaten to quit before the studio granted them a pay bump for the sequel.

“It used to be a lot easier to do these negotiations,” the agent sighs. “Now it’s much tougher, even for established writers. The studios insist that they’re only giving 10% raises, maximum.”

“There are a lot less jobs now,” moans one high-profile scribe, who says everyone is still feeling effects of the November-February work stoppage. “All the high-ticket $650,000-plus writers are competing more,” he says, “and everyone else is pushed down one tier.”

One scribe compared the downsizing to the aftermath of the last writers’ strike 20 years ago, when there was a culling of the herd.

Indeed, there has been consolidation throughout the industry in recent months, with New Line shrinking and Picturehouse and Warner Independent shuttering. Ramped up buys by CBS Films and MGM have helped mitigate those losses, but there might be future cutbacks on the way: Mouse House and Time Warner brass have been beating the drum for reduced film output.

“Everybody, even the top A-list people, are stressing over whether people will give them their quotes, because every time they have a chance to knock them down, they do it,” says another tentpole scribe, who attributes the lower prices to the fact “there are less jobs to go around” rather than the strike.

It’s harder to set up projects with top film scribes as well. “The purse strings are being tightened and studio execs aren’t saying ‘yes’ as much as they were,” one manager for a much-in-demand scribe says.

To cope with the market pressures, some scribes and their managers are taking a page out of the congloms’ books: They’re diversifying.

“People are starting to look at alternate ways to earn a living as a writer, whether it’s the Web, TV or direct-to-DVD,” says Alison Rosenzweig, a producer-manager. “I’m not alarmist. To me, there are a lot of ways to make money in this business.”

Anne Thompson, Tatiana Siegel, Dave McNary and Marc Graser contributed to this report.

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