×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Development Slates Shrinking As Film Remakes, Sequels Dominate

Budgets have shriveled so much even superhero funding is hard to come by

The art of the pitch is fast disappearing in the movie business. No longer can a nimble storyteller pop loglines like “Godzilla meets Dr. Dolittle” or “Bulworth marries Catwoman” and depart with a fat fee.

In fact, development budgets have shriveled so much that even superhero funding is hard to come by. While studios are eager to keep pushing their metallic metrics — “Man of Steel” or “Iron Man” — the specter of another “Green Lantern” hovers darkly. Warner Bros. has effectively spent the budget of another “Harry Potter” in trying to jostle DC Comics characters back to life or to bring the much-cancelled Justice League into the big leagues.

Thus, even a revered storyteller would think twice about spinning the outline of a drama or comedy to an ADD-afflicted development team. As one high-priced writer told me, “Even if they like your idea, they’ll probably ask me to knock out a free draft.”

On one level, the studios’ wariness is understandable. Five years ago I got my hands on the development slate of a major studio. By 2013, only three of the 50 projects on the list had found their way to production.

Development once held the key to a studio’s future. Stars and filmmakers were under contract and most studios even had a writers’ building to house artisans laboring on the screenplay assembly line.

In recent years, however, studio development teams have become scattershot in their approach. Here are random loglines of current projects: There’s “Earth Dick,” in which an alien race thinks it’s found a savior from planet Earth, only to discover he is really an actor who plays superheroes. Then there’s the high-concept story about a man who saves a stray cat after it’s hit by a car, only to discover he now has nine lives. And the girl who hires a dog trainer to re-program her boyfriend, only to find — I’ll spare you the details.

Hoping for safer ground, some studios prefer to redevelop projects that have been made before. Trouble is many, like “Psycho” or “Sabrina,” don’t fit the recycling formula. Not even David O. Selznick could get a “Gone With the Wind” sequel to work.

Based on conversations with four top production executives, here’s the way development strategy lays out at this moment:

Development slates have been compressed, meaning fewer projects, reduced writing fees and lower expectations from top management. “For a $40 million development budget, you keep the younger executives and filmmakers happy, and pray for an occasional winner,” says one exec.

“We are shortening the gap from the page to the stage,” reports another, meaning his studio has lost its enthusiasm for projects that drift through multiple drafts over several years in development hell. Studios increasingly are making one-draft deals with writers. The first try delivers or the project is cancelled.

“Projects can’t pick up momentum at my studio unless a director becomes attached, and it has to be a director that our studio urgently wants,” comments an executive from yet another studio. Picking up “elements” is all the more difficult because most studios have abandoned housekeeping deals for directors, producers or even stars.

In commenting on all this, executives don’t want to be quoted, as though underscoring that “development” has become a dirty word. Studio hierarchs enjoy talking about hits; they’re even willing to chat now and then about fi lms in production (providing they’re not overbudget.)

As for development — well, it’s all about nurturing talent, not nurturing box office. And what’s talent got to do with the bottom line?

More Biz

  • The Peanut Butter Falcon

    'The Peanut Butter Falcon,' 'For Sama' Win Top Awards at Nantucket Film Festival

    NANTUCKET, Mass. — Adventure drama “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and Syria documentary “For Sama” emerged as the top winners at the 24th annual Nantucket Film Festival. The festival, which concludes today, as ever put the emphasis on screenwriters and emerging talents. Director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Sundance hit “Brittany Runs a Marathon” had a number of [...]

  • Donald Trump Ari Emanuel

    Ari Emanuel Was Vetted for Trump Administration Role

    Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel was vetted for an unidentified role in the Trump Administration in November 2016, Axios reported on Sunday. Axios received a leak of nearly 100 internal vetting documents from the Trump transition, including reports on Rex Tillerson, Betsy DeVos, Gary Cohn and James Mattis. The researchers scrubbed news clippings, LinkedIn pages, and [...]

  • Prince Death

    Prince’s ‘Batman' at 30: How the Film Saved His Career From ‘Horrible’ Financial Straits

    As the movie that ushered in both the modern-day superhero genre and a new peak in the art of saturation marketing, Tim Burton’s “Batman” has a legacy that’s hard to overstate. Virtually everything associated with the 1989 comic-book adaptation became a cultural phenomenon, from Burton’s mischievous, mainstream-goth aesthetic to the meta-narrative of the film’s record-breaking [...]

  • 76th ANNUAL GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS --

    Viacom Partners With Tyler Perry for BET Plus Streaming Service

    Viacom’s BET Networks has teamed with Tyler Perry to create a subscription streaming service that combines the prolific auteur’s library of movies and TV shows with BET’s programming vault. The service dubbed BET Plus will bow in the fall with a handful of original series and productions and a deep library offering that will be [...]

  • During an interview at her home

    Judith Krantz, Best-Selling Author and Columnist, Dies at 91

    Judith Krantz, a best-selling author known for her novels “Scruples” and “Princess Daisy,” died Saturday from natural causes, surrounded by family, friends and her four dogs at her Bel Air, California home, her publicist John Tellem confirmed. She was 91. Krantz began her career in journalism, working for Good Housekeeping writing freelance articles for Macleans, [...]

  • Plume of black smoke rising from

    Soundgarden, Tupac and Tom Petty Estates Sue Universal Music Over Fire Damage

    Attorneys representing Soundgarden, Hole, Steve Earle and the estates of Tupac and Tom Petty today filed a class-action lawsuit against Universal Music Group over the master recordings destroyed in a 2008 fire, the extent of which was revealed last week in a New York Times article. The lawsuit, obtained by Variety, seeks some “50% of [...]

  • John Prine, Kamasi Washington, Sub Pop

    John Prine, Kamasi Washington, Sub Pop Win Big at A2IM Libera Awards

    Out of all the awards shows Variety Music attends every year — and we hit a few — in many ways A2IM’s Libera Awards, which celebrate the tight-knit independent label sector, is the most fun. It’s got awards and performances and a host and people get dressed up and all that, but at the end [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content