Deals edge up, but paydays are diminished

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Studios have stopped slashing producer deals … for now. But being a producer in Hollywood isn’t getting any easier.

While the tally of deals has seen an uptick over the past six months, that number remains less than half of what it was a decade ago, when 292 deals were listed in Variety’s 2000 report. The number fell to 241 in 2001, stayed fairly consistent for the next half-dozen years and then plunged to 184 two years ago, 151 last year and 132 in the most recent survey.

In the half a year since Variety’s last Facts on Pacts compilation (Variety, March 22-28), the number of term deals at the major studios has actually edged up 5%, from 135 to a total of 142. But paydays are smaller and the pacts come with tighter restrictions, most notably a reduction of the number of shooting days, which have been whittled down significantly over the past decade, particularly for non-tentpole films.

Producer deals these days vary wildly, from multimillion-dollar pacts with perks to more meat-and-potatoes arrangements that effectively cover office space, a bit of overhead and little more, to distribution-only setups. For many producers today, discretionary funds fall into the category of something that existed in the “good old days.”

During the span since the March tally of producer deals, the landscape has continued to shift, reflecting the majors’ nervousness over delivering a stream of reliable product while keeping costs under control — at a time when predicting audience preferences has become harder than ever.

n Paramount, Fox and Disney have all increased the number of their deals since last spring, with Paramount going from eight to 13, Fox from 18 to 19 and Disney from 20 to 22. The latter is significant in that many studio observers had anticipated that studio chief Rich Ross, installed in October, 2009 would kick loose a significant number of pacts.

n Overture Films was folded into Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media in July, and its five producer pacts subsumed with it.

n Marc Forster, Ashton Kutcher and Joe Roth no longer have deals. But Simon Kinberg (Genre Films), Jeffrey Silver (Sashamax), Jim Whittaker and David Ellison (Skydance), Michael Bay (Platinum Dunes) and post-production specialist Stefan Sonnenfeld, with his self-named banner, do.

n Studios are still using their most prominent — and proven — producing partners for their most ambitious projects. Last week, for example, Universal tapped Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer for a grand-scale film trilogy and multiseason TV series based on Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” novels.

And while there are signs of a slowly recovering economy, the studios have tended assiduously to their bottom lines in these leaner times, and simply aren’t doling out dollars like they used to, either on individual deals or film productions.

“Studios are spending less on development because the business is going through a big readjustment,” says Mark R. Gordon, whose recent credits include “2012” and “The Messenger.” “One would hope that the quality of the material is getting better. But that remains to be seen.”

Amid shrinking studio slates and congloms’ obsessive attention to the bottom line, producers have seen their earnings-potential diminish. One of the more notable pressure points has become the number of shooting days.

Early in this decade, shooting schedules were more expansive. Some examples: “Riding in Cars With Boys” took 93 days; “Unfaithful,” 96 days; “Bruce Almighty,” 83 days; “Vanilla Sky,” 82 days; “S.W.A.T,” 75 days; “Death to Smoochy,” 68 days.

By contrast, studios are now insisting most midrange films be shot in well under 60 days.

“Going the Distance” lensed in 45 days; “Big Momma’s House: Like Father Like Son,” 44 days; “Horrible Bosses,” 46 days; and “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins,” 44 days.

Gordon, who became co-prexy of the Producers Guild of America in June alongside Hawk Koch, says the shrinkage of shooting days has occurred amid increased studio pressure to reduce costs wherever possible.

“Budgets are shrinking in all areas — visual effects, post-production, above-the-line costs, production days,” Gordon says. “Producers are being asked to do more with less.”

But one prominent producer and former studio production president says the dynamic is largely about rebalancing.

The studios are justified to insist on fewer production days, he says, adding, “Things used to be really bloated. The current production schedules are much more in line with reality.”

PGA exec director Vance Van Petten says the narrowing skeds are part of a larger trend by studios to monitor projects more closely at a time when the size of studio slates has flatlined or is in decline.

“There’s a noticeable inclination to pick young directors because studios want more and more control,” Van Petten says. “They are so involved in so many aspects. I used to hear 60-day shoots were the norm; now I hear 45 days a lot.”

Gordon’s predecessor at the PGA, Marshall Herskovitz, admits that he and longtime producing partner Ed Zwick have faced increased budgetary pressures on most recent Bedford Falls projects — Paramount’s war drama “Defiance” and Fox’s upcoming comedy-drama “Love and Other Drugs,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. But he says that being realistic about budget and time constraints makes the process far less stressful.

“Both ‘Defiance’ and ‘Love and Other Drugs’ were both made for a price,” he notes. “It was a pretty seamless negotiation with both sides being respectful. It does not have to be adversarial. And I’d be happy to make more of those kinds of deals.”

Herskovitz also says his three decades of producing for network TV made it possible to deal with shorter shooting schedules. “We learned how to do things tighter,” he notes. “Sometimes shorter schedules result in better movies because you make decisions right away. There’s no dithering.”

Producers — who are mostly loathe to be quoted by name for fear of endangering their own deals and relationships — are uncertain if the number of deals will stay the same amid the profound changes facing the business. But the consensus is that the deals most at risk are those that involve producers solely, while the most durable deals will likely be those with major stars such as Will Smith’s Overbrook at Sony, Brad Pitt’s Plan B at Paramount, Ben Stiller’s Red Hour at Fox and Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso at Warners.

And it’s significant that Warners, which has been consistently at or near the top in market share, has by far the largest roster of producing deals at 32. That’s partly due to it having the biggest preponderance of actors in such pacts, including Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Steve Carell, Zac Efron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr., Morgan Freeman and Johnny Depp. The deals for Affleck & Damon, Downey and Efron were all signed earlier this year.

Van Petten notes it’s no accident Warner has so many actor deals, given the proven success of its long deal with Eastwood.

“Clint is a hero because he always come in under the number of days, and under budget,” Van Petten says.

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