The expression “development hell” is taking on a whole new meaning in Hollywood.

The phrase once used to describe the interminable journey from first option to the bigscreen can now more accurately sum up the barren landscape of development spending at the six majors.

The scattershot approach of traditional development investment is giving way to a far more selective use of coin.

“Development activities at studios all over town have become more focused,” says one studio exec. “Is there less buying overall right now? Yes. (It) doesn’t mean writers are out of work. It means studios are taking a disciplined approach to development.”

The latest wave of belt-tightening kicked into high gear last fall when two studios — Universal and Sony — ran out of funds well before the end of the year.

For Sony, that meant assessing the state of its development coffers and realizing the cupboard was already pretty well stocked. Now, much to the dismay of the representation community, the studio has no plans to turn the spigot back on for anything but the hottest material. (The studio recently bid but ultimately lost out to Paramount in a high-stakes war over a Sacha Baron Cohen project.)

Universal began spending again when its fiscal year began Jan. 1, but not before asking its three most prolific production shingles — Imagine, Working Title and Stuber Prods. — to voluntarily cut spending. Since the year began, the studio has kept its wallet mostly closed, with the exception of nabbing David Guggenheim’s hot spec “Safe House” for Scott Stuber to produce.

In fact, 2010 has seen few splashy development sales in the marketplace, “Safe House” and the Cohen pitch notwithstanding.

“It feels like about half the development money that was available a couple years ago is available today,” says manager-producer JC Spink, who is based at New Line.

One studio admits it’s buying less but points to the fact that submissions have been trending downward for years. Its story department received about 2,600 scripts and pitches in 2005 and 2,200 in 2006. By 2009, the number was fewer than 1,900.

But most lit reps counter that supply in the marketplace is down because demand is at a low.

“The fact that no one is buying is making people afraid to take things out,” notes one manager.

While no studio wanted to be quoted on the record for this story, most agreed on background that there’s a new world order, with the major buyers drastically overhauling their approach to development spending.

Gone are the days when a studio might pre-emptively buy a script that it had no intention of making just to take it off the market. Pitches are also out. Scripts without talent attached are ice cold. One-step writer deals are in. Spending millions on 11th-hour rewrites for a pic that’s actually greenlit is preferable to doling out $250,000 on a spec that might never see the light of day.

“All the studios have gotten way more conservative,” says a Paramount executive. “As a result, studios are relying on one-step writer deals so that they don’t have to pay for numerous rewrites. This puts more pressure on the writer to do the job. The money a company would have spent to bring additional writers in can now be spent on acquiring other content.”

A studio topper at a rival concurs: “There’s no question about it, there is less speculative spending than ever before. The biggest shift is the way resources are now being largely earmarked for existing franchises.”

In the past, studios hedged their bets like an overly cautious Vegas gambler, putting a little money on every number on a roulette wheel. Nowadays, they’re more inclined to lay down a bundle of cash, but on only three or four choices.

Still, two studios say they are bucking the trend. Disney is spending roughly the same as it normally does on development; if there’s any change, it’s that spending has actually gone up slightly now that new studio chief Rich Ross and production prexy Sean Bailey are assembling their slates for 2011 and beyond.

And a top Fox exec says the studio hasn’t cut back on development in any of its units. The studio recently won a bidding war for film rights to Brit author Catherine Fisher’s young-adult tome “Incarceron.”

Writers and their reps are looking to a handful of nonstudio big spenders including Hyde Park, Summit, Lakeshore, Alcon, Relativity, Regency and Gold Circle to fill some of the void in snapping up specs, books and even the occasional pitch. DreamWorks, with little in its development vault after splitting from Paramount, has been particularly aggressive.

Only time will tell how the move away from yesteryear studio development spending will affect future slates. The old-school approach spawned a number of this summer’s pics, including Sony’s “Salt,” Paramount/DreamWorks’ “Dinner for Schmucks,” Warner Bros./New Line’s “Going the Distance,” Fox’s “Knight and Day” and Universal’s “Get Him to the Greek.”