Market for Package Deals and Original Ideas Heats Up Ahead of Platform Launches

Reese Witherspoon Kerry Washington Ryan Reynolds

Practically every studio in town wanted it, but in the end it was Apple that swept in to nab the reinterpretation of “A Christmas Carol” with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. To buy the highly coveted package, the tech giant was willing to shell out more than $60 million to the stars and the film’s writers and co-directors, Sean Anders and John Morris. It’s a massive payday, one that brings to mind a bygone era when a hot script and A-list talent were enough to incite a bidding war. But it was also one that Apple deemed necessary if it was going to outmaneuver Netflix, Warner Bros. and Paramount, all of whom were trying to land the project.

In recent years, the market for these “packages,” industry-speak for projects that frequently come with key filmmaking talent and actors attached, had cooled off. Studios were spending more money on comic book adaptations and established franchises. They weren’t on the prowl for original ideas.

That’s changing, however. In recent weeks, several high-profile packages have inspired feverish bidding on the part of studios and streaming players. They include “Pyros,” a sci-fi adventure starring Reese Witherspoon that sold to Netflix; “Shadow Force,” a Kerry Washington and Sterling K. Brown action pic that landed at Lionsgate; and “Don’t Worry Darling,” a psychological thriller starring and directed by Olivia Wilde, which went to New Line after attracting offers from nearly 20 companies.

In many cases, these projects drew top dollar. “Don’t Worry Darling,” for instance, snagged both a $20 million budget agreement and a wide-release commitment — a hefty payday considering that Wilde has yet to headline a blockbuster. And the figures are likely to rise. Oscar-winning “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle and “District 9” auteur Neill Blomkamp are shopping their next projects and have already drawn offers from major players. Chazelle’s film, titled “Babylon,” will star Emma Stone and unspools in 1920s Hollywood, while details of Blomkamp’s movie remain closely guarded, though it is expected to be a genre picture. Deals are anticipated to close imminently.

All of these scripts were written on spec, meaning they came about independently and without the backing of a major studio. That’s become something of a necessity as studios have begun doing fewer “first look” deals with talent.

So what’s behind the boom in spec sales? Insiders say a number of factors are fueling the new hunger for splashy projects. In the coming months, deep-pocketed entrants such as Apple TV Plus, HBO Max and Disney Plus are expected to launch, and these streaming services are desperate for exclusive content to offer their subscribers. Apple has proved particularly aggressive, shelling out not only for “Christmas Carol” but also for “The Banker,” a period drama with Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie.

“Apple throwing their hat in the ring only helps the package market because it now gives us a buyer who will outbid someone like Netflix, who is commonly overpaying for [intellectual property],” says one studio executive.

The other motivating factor is the stalemate between the Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies. The ongoing legal dispute over packaging fees, the money that agencies make for bundling talent in television shows, has resulted in scores of top writers firing their representation. That, in turn, has left agencies scrambling to find fresh revenue streams. In the process, many have been dusting off old scripts or optioning articles or other types of intellectual property. They’ve then matched those projects with clients who are directors or actors. As the fight between the guild and the agencies has dragged on, more packages have been hitting the market.

In the end, the rise in these projects could help an industry on the prowl for the next great idea.

“I think it’s a good thing — packages give the artists an opportunity to present their material to a buyer the way they envision it,” says Elizabeth Raposo, president of production at Paramount.

The boom could turn to bust, however, if these projects fail to connect with audiences. Just look at the market for finished films. At this year’s Sundance, Amazon shelled out more than $45 million for the likes of “Late Night,” “The Report” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” only to see many of its big buys collapse at the box office. At last month’s Toronto Film Festival, other studios were reluctant to write big checks for movies lest they overspend for something with iffy commercial prospects. The same could happen with the package market if this fall’s hot sale turns into next year’s cautionary tale.