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UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer: Studio Film Quality Has ‘Suffered’

Agency topper predicts return of story-driven features

Spectacle-driven film franchises will decline and there will be renewed interest and investment in story-driven features, United Talent Agency CEO and co-founder Jeremy Zimmer predicted Thursday.

“I think a lot of issues conspired to lead us to a place where I think the quality of the studio product has suffered,” said Zimmer. “Part of that is technology. Technology became the opportunity to do things as a filmmaker, digital technology, CGI, 3D, was so exciting. (It was) ‘Wow, we can do anything.’ You create this over-reliance on scale and hoopla and sound effects and special effects and noise, and you become less dependent on the story.”

He also said giant opening weekend grosses had misled the studios. “You get hooked. Believe me, when you’re involved in a movie and it opens to $80 or $90 or $100 million, and does $6, 7, 800 million worldwide, it’s a very very powerful phenomenon. You can get really hooked on wanting to do that a lot and you can get a little lost.”

He said many factors were to blame for the shift away from story and toward spectacle, including the high cost sof stars and marketing.  Despite all that, Zimmer said he expects a re-emergence of storytelling in features, “because we’ve reached franchise fatigue to some degree.

“I think a lot of the franchises that people have become dependent on have played out,” he said. “There’s skepticism that every cereal box deserves to be a movie. I think every trend has a peak and a valley and I think we’re moving back toward a place with enhanced storytelling with better screenplays, more of an emphasis on development… in the next few years.”

But he said that he expects a strong fall and winter movie season will have people saying by next year, “The movie business is back.”

Zimmer was interviewed onstage in Beverly Hills at an event hosted by the The Atlantic magazine. The Atlantic’s Washington editor-at-lage Steve Clemons quizzed him.

In a conversation with Variety following the public event, Zimmer expanded on his thoughts.

“My belief is that you’re going to see studios spending more money, new producers coming into the marketplace willing to invest in development, and a resurgence of some excitement and enthusiasm around screenwriting and screenplays,” he said.

He said he’s hopeful that the story-driven pictures about to come to theaters will do well, and that “people will see that there’s a benefit to spending more money and time in development.

“One of the reasons we have such an exciting technology environment is there’s an entire ecosystem built around investing in the development of new technology,” said Zimmer. “I think in order for new ideas to proliferate, there has to be an environment that encourages that and invests in that. I think you’re also going to see new sources of development financing coming into the system, people who are willing to invest in story and screenplays, optioning books and developing that kind of material.”

He added that because the cost of writers has been contained over recent years by the lack of development financing, “you can now get a lot more bang for your buck” in development. He also credited the creative explosion on television, led by writer-driven series.

“My friends at the studios are sitting at home watching “Breaking Bad” and watching “The Newsroom” and “Ray Donovan,” and I know they are appreciative of the great writing that goes into them, and I’m certain they’re going to make the leap that says ‘Wow, maybe we have to spend more money on developing better ideas with more writers.’”

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