Full swing for spring recovery

H'wood shouts 'Action!' as vital signs point to rebound

The U.S. economy may be poised for recovery in 2002, but Hollywood seems to be already there.

Just ask Neda Shahrokhi, a sales rep at Beverly Hills BMW: She recently bought a $100,000 red Ferrari with a transparent hood — a treat for herself after selling so many Beemers to showbiz insiders.

Restaurants, catering services, florists and valet services say business is flourishing. Bob Spivak, founder of BevHills power-lunch hangout the Grill, says it has never been harder to reserve a 1 p.m. booth.

As Hollywood gets further away from 2001 — a year fraught with anxiety over strikes, dwindling stock portfolios and anthrax — a new confidence is radiating across town.

Forty-three studio features will roll into production by the end of March, compared with 17 in the third quarter last year. New development money is flowing from studio coffers, and execs are antsy to see material.

But if Hollywood has finally turned a corner, it didn’t happen overnight.

“You had the industry starting from a dead stop,” said Fox prexy of production Hutch Parker. “This isn’t a business that starts on a dime.”

Pedal to the metal

But the studios have vigorously returned to the business of filmmaking, and the Hollywood economy is suddenly churning with big deals — for producers, directors, books, pitches and scripts.

Studios have inked pacts with suppliers like Bill Mechanic’s Pandemonium (Disney); Tollin/Robbins Prods. (Paramount); “Mummy” director Stephen Sommers (Universal); and Ed McDonnell’s new shingle, Maple Shade Films (Warner Bros.).

There’s buzz on high-profile projects like a live-action “Peter Pan,” a potential Tom Cruise-Steven Spielberg war pic, and another installment of “Indiana Jones.” And Bruce Willis has done his part, committing to topline three projects in the last three weeks.

There’s been a slew of lightning-fast development deals.

Take “Breakups Are Their Business,” an article by Los Angeles Times staff writer Mark Magnier that ran in the paper Jan. 10. By Jan. 15, ICM had attached comedy writer Ricky Blitt, who pitched it to eight studios by phone in a single afternoon, with DreamWorks eventually reeling it in.

“People are more anxious to read and hear about material,” said UTA motion picture lit head Jeremy Zimmer. “When you send a book out, people read it overnight. When you’ve got a pitch coming out, people are anxious to hear it.”

The town is often quiet during the Sundance Film Festival, but this surge of dealmaking happened as Park City, Utah, saw a steep rise in buying activity, with distribs rushing to flesh out their release slates for 2003.

The rebound at the studios owes something to the inevitable turn of the calendar. Studios have new budgets, and their pockets are stuffed with cash to spend on development.

The new year, said Artisan Pictures CEO Bob Cooper, always brings a new rush of studio dealmaking. “You reflect, you make New Year’s resolutions. They could be about how you spend your money as a studio. People put their foot on the accelerator after Jan. 1.”

But it’s also a function of last year’s lopsided production schedule. Execs have spent months finishing pics shot before the strike deadline, and that has made it hard to look over the hump at the pipeline for 2003.

Package deals

Now studios are attempting to plug the holes in their slates, and some are asking talent agents to deliver projects with major elements intact, said Rand Holston, co-head of CAA’s motion picture lit department. “Studios are coming to us, and saying we need a couple more films for the rest of this year, and thinking to package films with our movie stars and our writers and directors.”

Unlike last year, when projects were stockpiled for a work stoppage that never happened, the production mills are grinding at a reasonable pace.

“The joint is hopping,” said Buena Vista Motion Picture Group prexy Nina Jacobson.

“And it’s a healthier kind of activity than the prestrike hysteria,” she added. “We have a lot of movies that are going; we have great scripts that are coming in. But you’re only doing it because you have good material, not because of external circumstances bearing down on you.”

Sharing the wealth

hat will mean healthier job growth industrywide as more pics roll into production in months to come.

Art Brewer, business agent for Local 44, said unemployment levels in the local have already dropped to 28% from last month’s 32%. His local is one of the largest Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees units, with over 6,000 members in nine categories such as prop master, prop builder, set decorator, special effects builder and floor coverer.

It’s too early for numbers to show a change at the California Film Commission, but exec director Karen Constine said that it feels a lot more lively there than in the past few months. “I have noticed an increase in visits to our location-scouting center. And there’s an increase in calls from people who are planning to do features. Things are starting to pick up.”

Last year, a combination of factors conspired to plunge the industry into a state of depression:

n The near strikes. A work stoppage was avoided, but not before havoc was wreaked on production cycles. There was a glut of production last spring and a glut of post work in the fall.

“Last Christmas (i.e., 2000), I had 10 films shooting at the same time,” said Fox’s Parker. “That means you go into post with 10 films at once. You were focused on a year’s worth of banked movies.”

n A flagging economy. Traditionally a recession-resistant business (witness last year’s record $8 billion in box office), Hollywood suffered with the rest of the country as TV advertising dipped along with congloms’ share prices, generating a wave of layoffs and downsizing.

n Sept. 11 and the onset of war. Terrified by the skittish mood of consumers, distrib and marketing execs scrambled to rejigger their fall release slates, and creatives dithered over risky projects. The festive spirit that usually greets the big year-end releases evaporated. Fun for fun’s sake was deemed inappropriate: Premiere parties were turned into charity fundraisers or cancelled.

In contrast, the current production boom comes as the awards season swings into gear. After months of low-key industry events, the town’s optimism symbolically bubbled over on Golden Globes weekend. Gone were the somber poses, hushed talk of politics, grousing over pinkslips and tight budgets. Instead, people talked of the Globes, Oscars and work.

At the Universal-DreamWorks-USA Films soiree at Trader Vic’s on Jan. 20 — one of several parties that followed the Globes kudocast –industryites consumed 50 gallons of Mai Tais, 6,000 pieces of sushi and 3,000 crispy shrimp.

In other words, it was an ebullient scene that felt reassuringly familiar. Hollywood was workin’ it, honey.

(David Bloom and Dave McNary in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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