Fresh faces fuel surge in deals


RELATED: Toll worker's spec attracts big names

When a high-ranking development executive predicted a spec boom just as the writers strike was ending, Michael Martin is probably not whom he had in mind.

But the Brooklyn tollbooth worker, like the insurance salesman living with his parents in Pennsylvania or the unknown Georgia-based indie filmmaker who only recently moved to Los Angeles, is becoming the unlikely avatar of a new movement.

Two months after the strike ended, a much-anticipated spec boomlet finally is emerging. But instead of the expected flurry of deals from such A-listers as Stephen Gaghan and Steven Zaillian, it's coming from writers with barely a credit to their name.

And instead of studios such as Warner Bros. and Universal, the buyers central to the revival are new -- or at least newly configured -- entities such as Relativity Media and CBS Films, or even Millennium/Nu Image.

Solid six- or even seven-figure sales for newbie scribes have been coming with regularity during the past few weeks, with nearly every day bringing word of a name that makes rival agents and execs scratch their head and say, Who?

The reason? These writers' more experienced counterparts are busy. While many top-tier talents have been quietly pressed back into work on existing projects, aspiring scribes like Martin ("Brooklyn's Finest"), the insurance-policy peddler Brad Ingelsby ("The Low Dweller") and the Georgia-based Lars Jacobson ("C.O.D") have gone from unknowns to Hollywood Hills household names.

"People were waiting for all this material from big writers and it didn't happen, and that's allowed new writers to make sales," Summit production chief Erik Feig said. "I don't know if this kind of material would have gotten attention in the agency or studio system at any other time."

Studio execs and agents say that the recent emergence can't always be neatly categorized as traditional specs. Projects like Martin's and Ingelsby's come with stars or directors attached (Richard Gere and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively), a feature that wasn't present in previous spec booms -- and which might not have been as necessary had the specs come from higher-profile writers.

Still, the hunger for material is finally taking shape, and giving hope to those who worried that a dearth of material and cautious studios would keep the market at a lull.

The door also has opened despite how well-prepared many studios were before the labor stoppage.

Studios commenced so many projects in preparation for the stoppage and moved ahead aggressively projects with directors or talent attached that when the strike ended they found themselves with a backlog. In the meantime, distributors and studio-like entities just beginning to ramp up before the strike were set back by three months.

It's these players -- along with such companies as a newly reconstituted MGM and a new direction at New Line -- who are becoming aggressive.

"It feels like there are more people buying than ever," said Aaron Kaplan, a manager at Kaplan/Perrone, whose clients, Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, sold "Underage" to DreamWorks.

Some studios have, of course, also dipped their toe into spec waters since the strike ended. Sony/Columbia, with specs from Roland Emmerich and Stephen Belber, is one notable, as is DreamWorks, which has bought Jacobson's "C.O.D.," the Peter Morgan spec 'Hereafter" and Cornelius Uliano and Bryan Schulz's "Imaginary Friends," from first-timers who graduated last year from film school.

Agents and execs are cautious about how long this will last. "One buy tends to beget another," one agent said. "When a studio loses out on a script, that's the time to strike with someone new because you know there's an appetite."

Industry players across the development market say they expect the momentum to continue for at least a number of weeks.

The post-strike climate 20 years ago that birthed the spec business went on, of course, for years.

But the previous post-stirke boom also offers some cautionary tales for the present.

Writers like Joe Eszterhas sold "Basic Instinct" for $3 million and Shane Black, already a wunderkind, peddled "The Last Boy Scout" for nearly $2 million. Both those movies became hits.

But other big paydays were little more than that. Kathy McWorter's seven-figure sale for the romantic comedy "The Cheese Stands Alone," Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto's equally pricey "The Ticking Man" and Lee and Janet Scott Batchler's "Smoke & Mirrors" all were big script sales that never turned into movies.

Some point out that new players can be more fickle than established studios. "It's easy for a startup to pay $750,000 in development costs because they need to justify their existence," one agent said. "But if they don't get the star they want and the movie doesn't get made, will they be more gun-shy the next time a big script comes their way?"