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?