Crisis at the Movies: No New Ideas
Who's to blame for the lack of original movie projects being submitted to film studios these days?
In recent months, a Mexican standoff among production executives, producers, writers and their agents has led to a shortage of big new ideas in Hollywood. Vertical integration and a bottom-line reliance on prebranded franchises have combined with diminished film slates, producer deals and writing jobs to drive spec submissions down by more than half. As a result, the cupboards have gone bare, and no one is restocking them.
"Fertility occurs in the marketplace when there are a lot of ideas flowing," one producer says. "The fact that we have so few specs means there's a lack of vibrancy to what's going on."
Says a major studio president, "It didn't happen overnight, but when you look at us compared to four or five years ago, it's shocking."
At that time, specs would be submitted to studios all week long, bidding wars would spark, and execs would have to snap up hot scripts quickly. But as that sense of urgency loosened and fewer specs sold, a self-perpetuating ecosystem emerged. Now, writers and agents looking to maintain careers and commissions are abandoning original screenplays to deliver template-fitting material such as an amusing version of The Muppets (Disney) or a fresh take on Snow White (Universal, Relativity, Disney).
"The writers are only as good as the input they're given," one lit agent says. "If their agents are saying, 'No, it's all about Magic 8 Ball: The Movie -- now go figure it out,' then they're going to do that. You only have so much time in the day. It's the system that's at fault, not the writer."
Counters the studio head: "Writers like to give themselves excuses to say, 'Oh they're looking for this; they're looking for that,' and they can't get themselves up to write something original. It's becoming a problem for the studios because it's forcing us to become more dependent on remakes and reinventions and prebranded IP simply because there are not a lot of big new ideas out there. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
That mutually detrimental "prophecy" has led everyone to gear decision-making toward "safer" choices. If you're a writer, why spend months writing a spec when the odds of a studio buying it are negligible? Meanwhile, if you can hook up with a producer and a property such as Space Invaders (Warner Bros.), Monopoly (Universal) or View Master (DreamWorks), it immediately gets the attention
of a studio desperately looking to fill out a slate.
The onslaught of these prefab projects has fostered creative stagnation. "Now you're writing in a very confined environment," says one screenwriter who co-wrote one of this summer's (prebranded) studio tentpoles. "They give you the house, and all you can do is decorate it. You can't build your own house, and you can't change the house, but you can furnish it however you like."
This system has encouraged everyone to ignore the truth of out-of-nowhere surprises like The Hangover. "One of the great fallacies of it all is, you create franchises, they don't appear," says a producer who's had success with huge franchises and Oscar-nominated original material. "What the studios are saying is there are no softballs sitting out there. And they're right. But there almost never have been."
Rare franchise-creating specs such as Shane Black's Lethal Weapon or the Wachowskis' The Matrix would probably not be produced today, unless they could be made for a much lower price. But recent successful examples such as The Fighter, The Town, The King's Speech and Black Swan have shown that writers can focus on more original material as long as it's on a very tight budget, especially if it piques the interest of A-level stars.
"The pendulum's swinging the other way," the agent says. "If a script comes in good, we're going to sell it for a lot of money."
The studio head agrees: "I actually think it's an incredible market for sellers right now and a terrible market for buyers because when there's material that's of any sort of interest, it sells immediately."
-- Borys Kit contributed to this report.