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Agent’s angst

Tenpercenters grade studio greats, grates

Nobody got an A grade overall. On the other hand, nobody ended up with an F. Universal goes to the head of the class, but everyone gets passing marks; no one has to stay after school.

Last week, Daily Variety asked nearly 50 agents to rate 11 studios on three main criteria: speed and efficiency of response, thoughtfulness and creativity of response and ability to close deals effectively.

In dozens of interviews with Hollywood’s top agents, much about the studios’ personalities was revealed. Since this is a survey of sellers, it’s not surprising that the big buyers did well. And since this is Hollywood, it’s not surprising that agents, guaranteed anonymity, were much more lavish in their criticism than in their praise.

If the results seem harsh — as they will to some studio execs and their conglomerate bosses — they also show how the business of movie-making gets done today.

“The worst thing that ever happened to Hollywood,” lamented one top literary agent, “is the corporatization of the studios.”

Yet the studio owned by a French water and utility company, Vivendi Universal, finished with top grades in the poll. (Perhaps it’s a coincidence that U Studio’s prexy-chief operating officer is Ron Meyer, a graduate of the agency ranks.)

Young and hip

“Universal is young, hip and accessible,” gushed one agent. “They are a pleasure to work with.”

The studio got B grades in two categories, and scored a B+ for its ability to close deals efficiently.

The only other B+ — the highest grade given — went to Joe Roth’s Revolution, for speed and efficiency of response.

In terms of overall grades, the runners-up to U were Revolution, DreamWorks and Walt Disney, which all earned a B average.

The lowest grade in any single category went to Fox, which earned a D+ for ability to close deals efficiently.

If Fox wants to see the glass as half-full, the execs can congratulate themselves for tough deal-making.

But the agents think it’s too tough: “They get a bonus each time they blow a deal,” deadpanned one. “It’s like having the police run your country. They’re impossible,” fumed another.

Solid C

Still, Fox got a relatively high grade for its creativity (a B-), so its average grade is a solid C.

That overall grade put it on a par with MGM and Miramax, which nabbed C grades in all three categories — meaning these three studios are at the bottom of the list.

MGM stirred little passion in the responses, but Miramax inflamed strong feelings. “It’s like indentured servitude,” sighed one.

But the company also sparked admiration. “They are the only people in town who really care passionately about the movies and not the deal; if they want something, they woo you and are incredibly seductive.”

The remaining four studios were in the middle range: Columbia TriStar and Warner Bros. earned B- ratings, while New Line and Paramount scored C+.

Regarding Par, “The menu is old-fashioned and the service hostile, but if you make it through, you generally consider you’ve had a good meal.”

Here are some reactions in the three categories surveyed:

  • Speed is a relative thing in Hollywood these days: The studios are sated. A vast glut of movies are either in production or in the can, greenlit to outlast Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes — both, of course, settled at the 11th hour.

Good metabolism

It’s worth noting that the studios that scored highest in the speed category may owe part of their success to their metabolism.

For example, nascent Revolution Studios is without a library and eager to build a slate; it rates high in the category for speedy responses.

So does U, which didn’t stockpile product as fervently as did its rivals. DreamWorks also did well, perhaps owing to its smaller size and trim slate.

The leading studios in the speed category all have production heads known for their accessibility to talent agents: U’s Stacey Snider, Scott Stuber and Mary Parent; Revolution’s Joe Roth and Todd Garner; Nina Jacobson at Disney and DreamWorks’ Michael DeLuca.

On the tail end, the studio that scored the lowest for response time — Miramax, with a relatively painless C- — can also move with cat-like quickness, when Harvey Weinstein tells it to.

Creative execs

In grading the thoughtfulness and creativity of studio responses, the agents’ results often correspond to the size of bureaucracy at a studio, or the longevity of its executive team (as with WB and Paramount).

For example, the leviathan Warners was given high marks for a “strong, deep creative team.” But many respondents felt it’s hampered by a Byzantine “groupthink” mentality: WB’s size can make project development a nightmare. One departed WB production exec was responsible for developing 140 projects — roughly triple of what other studio suits carry.

“Paramount only makes three kinds of movies,” one top agent asserted. “One is the Sherry Lansing-approved damsel-in-distress thriller. Two is whatever Scott Rudin wants to make. Three is MTV-targeted simple kid stuff. Anything else, you’re wasting your time with them.”

Disney’s suits got high grades for offering good creative suggestions, but lost points for being unclear about their overall mandate. DreamWorks was praised for fostering creativity and taking risks, but was chided for bottlenecking the process at the desk of toppers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald.

Conversely, MGM, which finished last on creative matters, seemed stymied by its small size. Agents said even creative responses that are constructive often are mired by a company prone to overthinking its moves. Leo may be overly cautious because of its small size and the greater damage it suffers if a movie fails.

Business affairs

Given that agents were asked to do the rating, it should come as little surprise that business affairs was the frequent bogeyman for all things wrong with a studio.

Many studios with competent or well regarded production execs would have scored better — or, as with Fox, Par or Miramax, far, far better — if not for the low scores for their biz affairs.

Agents who gave high marks to Fox’s senior production execs, such as Hutch Parker and Michael Andreen, rescinded their good humor at the mere mention of Fox’s business affairs.

If Fox’s emphasis is on the bottom line over aesthetics — for example, its preference for one-step deals, where writers are hired for a single draft of a screenplay — it simply reflects the News Corp. corporate philosophy. Who can blame agents for grousing? After all, they don’t own globally positioned satellite networks or TV stations.

The business affairs situation at Par isn’t much better, though it is marked more by parsimony than acrimony, agents said.

And one reason for Universal’s high score was its relatively pain-free business affairs unit, headed by the well-regarded Jimmy Horowitz.

(Cathy Dunkley, Jonathan Bing, Dana Harris and Tim Swanson contributed to this report.)

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