Studio scouts on the outs in Gotham

As studios scale back, NY offices are first to go, Lyne sez

It was a hot day in mid-August — Friday the 13th to be exact — and the four staffers of Universal’s Gotham development wing had been in their plush new 8th Avenue offices about a week. They had yet to finish unpacking the countless dusty boxes of coverage — a result of production veep and office head Peter Arnoff’s more than 10 years at the company.

Then newly named production prexy Kevin Misher, choked with emotion, delivered the bad news: Arnoff and his three colleagues were being given their walking papers, another casualty of the Seagram Corp.-owned studio’s weak year at the box office.

Quick fix

While the Universal layoffs came as a surprise to the New York development community — one agent heard of the sacking an hour after entering Arnoff’s new number in her speed dial — it is part of a pattern that’s been going on for years: studios scaling back their Gotham presence as a quick-fix cost-cutting measure.

“There was a time when quality source material was synonymous with New York City,” said a Gotham-based producer. “Not only was this the place you found the stuff, it was where you developed it, using talent from Broadway and the film schools. Now those books, that talent — it’s all below the radar.”

Most in the Gotham creative community concur. “As studios scale back everything, of course New York offices are the first to go,” said current ABC exec veep of movies and miniseries Susan Lyne, who segued from her post as editor of Premiere magazine to head Disney’s New York office.

“They don’t realize how highly effective a strong New York presence can be. Without a New York perspective, Hollywood product often ends up looking and feeling the same.”

Unfortunately, the way that the New York offices were functioning, too often they weren’t given an opportunity to provide that perspective.

The Universal office, like the Sony and Warner Bros. offices before them, essentially served as a high-priced scouting operation. Virtually the same service could be provided by foreign book scouts for about $5,000 a month — substantially less than the operating costs of a modestly staffed development office.

No purchasing power

The East Coast offices gave the West Coast a jump on fresh material, but they were almost never given the opportunity to purchase material on their own or develop it with New York talent.

And thanks to the buzz created by West Coast co-agents and book trackers and Gotham’s myriad book scouts — film development’s chattering class — the conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that studios will catch wind of any New York-generated source materials worth buying.

Some co-agents felt that a studio’s New York offices were their allies because, in their minds, they actually read the books that were submitted to them (unlike many West Coast development counterparts). However, others had begun avoiding them, submitting their material directly to the West Coast.

“If the New York person had been installed by a previous regime, they were almost never listened to,” said one West Coast co-agent.

As another agent said bluntly, “We have a tendency not to want to deal with people who don’t have any money.”

‘Informant’ buy

One of the last New York office heads empowered to spend money was Disney’s Lyne. She purchased the Vanity Fair article that’s the source of Michael Mann’s tobacco-industry whistle-blower pic “The Informant,” and she developed a project based on the murder of crusading Irish journalist Veronica Guerin.

When she was lured from that post in March 1998 by ABC Inc. prexy Robert Iger, Disney was seen as losing a rainmaker.

“Susan was a star because she had taste and she had money,” said a Gotham scout. “Give the rest of us money, and we’ll all be stars.”

But that’s not likely to happen — Disney has all but given up its search for a replacement, instead retaining a consultant to gauge the N.Y. landscape. Rumors that Warner Bros. was going to step up its New York commitment have been circulating for months, but so far nothing has come of it.

One thing is clear: Studio execs who are authorized to spend money in New York are going the way of the automat; that makes those in New York with money to spend — entities like Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax, Scott Rudin’s production shingle and, to a lesser extent, New Line — all the stronger.

“Harvey and Scott must lick their chops every time another office closes,” said an agent.

Will the studios ever return here for a larger piece of Gotham pie? Citing the cyclical nature of the Hollywood economy, most observers believe they will, though they are divided over whether it will be in a capacity to truly be effective.

Last man standing

For now, all eyes are on the last man, in this case woman, standing: Patricia Burke at Paramount, who heads the only studio office to survive the current wave of belt-tightening. Despite the trend, no one expects Burke to go anywhere — not as long as Sherry Lansing is president of the company. (Burke, who was on vacation and not available for comment, goes back with Lansing to the days of the Lansing-Jaffe production company.)

Burke is respected by the agents, who view her as both a good reader and a clearinghouse of info about the kind of material the producers on the lot are looking for. If in coming months Paramount leads the way in the acquisition of books and plays, expect Hollywood to take notice.

“The studio mentality is all about keeping up with the Joneses,” said a longtime Gotham industry observer. “Right now, Patricia Burke is the only Jones that’s left.”