Simpler deals, less product make for quicker work

Many talent agents who haven’t been consumed with Sundance business are emerging from a year-end break that unofficially began late in November, seems to linger a bit longer after New Year’s, and has grown more pronounced over the last decade.

Most are simply recovering from what’s become an increasingly concentrated and hectic September-November dealmaking period with the majors.

The more pronounced break afterward likely comes, at least in part, from the reduction in studio slates over the past few years, as well as the emphasis on big summer and Christmas releases with two correspondingly busy dealmaking periods (the other being March through June) to meet those deadlines.

“There’s also the opposing force of the award season, which basically grinds the business to a halt for three months,” and inspires studios to get fall dealmaking done more quickly, says an agent who reps busy talent at a top tenpercentery.

But there’s more to it than that, says another top agent. The deals required for big-budget tentpoles and sequels that make up a larger portion of studio slates are often more straightforward and less complex than talent contracts on studios’ shrinking number of original, midlevel-budget features, he says, often streamlining the process and shortening fall business dealings. (It’s not a topic many want to call attention to, one reason no agent or studio development exec — the two groups most affected by the break — wants to discuss it on the record.)

Some slowdown at the end of each year is a Hollywood tradition, of course, and even though studio dealmaking seems to have dialed down more during recent Decembers than in the past, it’s never completely dead. “If something comes up, everyone’s just a cell call or email away,” says another agent at a top tenpercentery. “No one travels without their email.”

What does the break look like from the studio side? A development exec at one of the majors enjoys the opportunity to play catch-up on his work and field less pitches. “It’s a welcome situation to have your call list down and your schedule open a little bit,” he says.

He agrees with the agent’s theory that tentpoles and sequels have streamlined dealmaking, adding that agents’ post-summer eagerness to get their clients work in fewer big-studio projects has led to a speedier fall. “But Hollywood never really sleeps, and if you’ve worked here long enough, everyone has your cell,” he adds. “I ended up doing some business over the break.”

There’s also possibility that the late-year dealmaking slowdown itself actually a good thing. One top agent thinks it points toward an efficient model for how the feature film business should operate.

“We should try to replicate how the TV business has traditionally worked on a yearly cycle: By this date we have to have this sold, by this date we have to have the pilot script in, by this date we have to shoot the pilot… .”

While the agent realizes this will probably never happen — due to the expansion of cable TV series’ nontraditional seasons, for one, and other international business dealings — an industry-wide move toward a more scheduled approach to business certainly would have its advantages.

“There are writing assignments at studios that are open for years with the same execs and agents spinning their wheels, and writers presenting new takes on projects that ultimately never get made,” he says. A more scheduled approach would allow everyone to get more things done and more new projects to move forward, he says.

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