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Studios developing a serious problem

THE STUDIOS have been sending mixed messages lately. They continue to reduce their producer and director deals and to curtail development, all in the interest of cost-cutting.

On the other hand, they’ve started to dole out big bucks to writers and filmmakers to mobilize a slate of movies in anticipation of next summer’s strike deadline.

If you find this crazy-making, consider the reaction of one director who, one week after having his deal blown off by a studio, found the same company hurling big money his way provided he agree to a quick start date.

There’s a perverse logic behind this neurotic behavior.

The studios are suddenly scared to death that threatened stoppages by writers and actors might paralyze their product flow. But if they’re concerned about their slates, why are they so fervently chopping away at their coterie of filmmakers?

AT THE CENTER of all this is the tacit admission that the studio development process is a total mess. The studios accept this and so do all those writers and filmmakers who wallow in development hell. It’s absolutely amazing that the machinery of development, which is wasteful both of talent and money, has sustained itself this long.

“The whole process sucks,” the production chief of one studio told me last week. “I hate it. I hate every aspect of it.”

Consider the following: Too many projects are put into development. Unqualified execs supervise the assembly line, so that each successive draft is weaker than its predecessor. Writers feel like cannon fodder as they are hired and fired. Filmmakers trying to shepherd projects become hopelessly frustrated. In the end, the wrong projects survive, representing perhaps less than 10% of those that were originally commissioned.

And things keep getting worse, not better.

According to one studio veteran, the reduction in overall producer deals has further increased the pressure on each development project. “But it’s the wrong kind of pressure,” he relates. “It’s ‘get it done faster’ pressure, not ‘get it done better.’ ”

Indeed, ask those who have been through the grind, and most will tell you that there’s no way of doing it better — not under this system anyway.

THE PRESENT-DAY development apparatus is a contorted hand-me-down from the halcyon days of the studio system when scores of talented writers were under contract, often coalescing on projects, dropping by one another’s offices to kibitz and offer advice.

Their work was in turn supervised by experienced contract producers or executives who themselves had lived through many movies and had abundant experience to draw upon.

That’s not how things work anymore. There are no more “writers’ buildings.” When a script is turned in, a writer may find himself at the mercy of a newly minted Harvard MBA or a film school grad. The script notes pour forth and the scripts become mired in bureaucratic inertia.

SO WHAT’S to be done? Some argue the entire apparatus should be scuttled and that the studios should remove themselves from the development business, delegating the process to other, more suitable entities.

Arguably the best writing in the pop arts is now being done for TV, where writers craft their scripts under the supervision of strong writer-producers who are demanding both in terms of speed and craftsmanship.

“If someone’s going to tell me how to make my script better, let it be an individual who knows the craft,” says one of the town’s best-paid writers, who just had a script destroyed by script notes.

With top writers getting $1 million for a draft and $150,000 a week for rewrites, the present hit-or-miss process represents a luxury the studios can no longer afford. Projects pile up $5 million-plus in development costs only to be consigned to the junk heap. And with the present rush to production stirred by strike panic, the problem will quickly get worse, not better.

Development hell has truly become hellish, even for the studios.

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