Too lean, too mean?

MEMO TO: Producers
FROM: Peter Bart

A quick word of advice: Don’t read the lead story in this week’s Variety. Unless, that is, you need fresh material to tell your therapist.

The story confirms a fact you don’t want to know: namely, that the major studios don’t want to be in business with you. At least, they don’t want to pay for the privilege.

The data is revealing enough. A company like Twentieth Century Fox, which had a total of 56 producing deals in 1999, now has 25. Over the same period Disney is down to 30 from 49.

The data tells only part of the story. The people who run the majors acknowledge that nearly all of their surviving deals have been sharply reduced. Multimillion-dollar development funds have been eviscerated, staffs pruned, offices eliminated.

The message is clear: This is a lousy time to be a producer. At least, a film producer. Paradoxically, the power of producers seemingly is on the rise in television, where even show runners command enormous salaries. No one challenges the producer’s importance in the theater.

Why, then, has the film biz turned against the producer? “It’s all about money,” says the production chief of one major, who asked for anonymity. “The guys who control the buck look at the cost of producer deals and say, ‘Ah, there’s a place we can cut.’ They don’t care about the price we’re paying in terms of ideas and energy.”

The doors are still wide open for certain types of producer deals, to be sure. Studios covet entities like Spyglass that bring co-financing to the table. They’re also open to some low-end deals in which a producer gets an office and secretary and is basically told, “show me.” Here and there a few hyper-active, head-banging producers survive — Scott Rudin at Paramount, Brian Grazer at Universal, Jerry Bruckheimer at Disney.

But times are changing; witness the phasing-out of the Kopelson deal at Fox. When Fox grabbed Arnold and Anne Kopelson from Warner Bros. more than three years ago, they threw in a sprawling suite of offices atop the Fox Plaza Towers, a vast discretionary fund and a substantial staff. The office that the Kopelsons shared was at least twice as big as those of Rupert Murdoch and Peter Chernin combined, commanding a sweeping view of the West Side.

The thing that kept bothering both the Kopelsons and Fox, however, was that movies weren’t happening. The team that gave birth to “The Fugitive” and “Eraser” at Warners couldn’t click at Fox. The Kopelsons are now moving their shingle to Intertainment, a German-financed company, with the hope of more bountiful days.

“We don’t want producer deals if they don’t produce movies,” says a top Fox executive. “Those deals are simply too expensive. The same goes for star deals or writer deals. They have to be productive.”

To be “productive,” of course, a studio has to be supportive. And filmmakers in turn have to come up with terrific material and irresistible elements.

Until recently, studios were willing to carry pricey producer deals, and even star deals for their “relationship value.” Even if the star proved to be inept at developing his own scripts, the studio could slot him into one of its own projects since he was there on the lot. The trouble is, it rarely worked out that way. The tab for unproduced properties kept growing. Producers argue that they’re now paying the price for all those futile vanity deals.

In Hollywood’s heyday, of course, the studios looked to producers to run the show — witness the illustrious careers of a Hal Wallis or a David O. Selznick. Producers guarded the budgets, supervised the editing, dealt with the stars and directors.

If studios decide to cut producers out of the action, who’s ultimately responsible for delivering a movie on budget? Will it be the star’s manager, who’s suddenly claiming producer credit? Or the director, whose appetite may exceed his budget? Or perhaps the studio’s own representative on the project, who may be an eager kid with an MBA who’s never been on a movie set?

“Look, I know we’re losing savvy, we’re losing experience, we’re losing new ideas,” acknowledges the head of production of one of the majors. “But the money guys say ‘cut’ and where else am I going to cut?”

This phase of “cutting,” to be sure, may prove to be very costly.

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