Universal stops spending in ’09

Studio halts development until 2010

Universal Pictures put the word out this week that it will not spend money for the rest of the year to advance development projects. Essentially, if your project isn’t being fast-tracked or greenlit, you won’t be able to spend money to move the project forward until 2010.

Word began filtering down to lot producers and the dealmaking community this week that development has essentially been frozen at the studio.

Such a move is not unprecedented. Studios often run through their fiscal-year budgets and sometimes make deals with writers and their agents that keep projects percolating but delay payments until the beginning of the next fiscal year, when budgets are replenished.

It’s unusual, however, for a major studio like Universal to implement such a move in mid-September, dealmakers say.

A studio insider denied that development has been frozen completely. Rather, the insider said, U has solidified its 2010 slate and has made commitments to the projects it feels will fill its 2011 slate. The studio doesn’t need to spend money on future projects right now because it essentially knows which pictures are going to get made over the next two years.

Still, the development is a blow to the dealmaking community, particularly writers’ reps. Across the post-strike studio landscape, writers’ reps are having a hard time making sizable deals for clients. Reps say despite some assertions in the press that the strike was worthwhile, they are dealing with residual animosity toward scribes that started a slide from past quotes — a dip that was cemented by the economic collapse.

Writers are now getting fractions of what they were paid before the strike, and new scribes are being presented with take-it-or-leave-it deals calling them to work for scale, reps said.

U isn’t the only studio putting the brakes on development. Despite making a recent multimillion-dollar deal to capture Beatles song rights for a “Yellow Submarine” remake involving Robert Zemeckis, Disney has reportedly slowed its development pace as well. However, Disney denied recent reports that it has frozen development.

Word is that Warner Bros. is paying scale to writers who don’t have established quotes, and most studios are employing one-step writer deals.

“Civility has gone out the window,” said one rep.

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