Let's make a script deal

Biz revving up amid peace talk

With optimism spreading about an imminent resolution of the writers strike, film agents, producers and development execs are bracing for a barrage of dealmaking.

"It's started already," said one development exec, who like many sources spoke on background because the strike has yet to be settled. "Just in the last few days I'm starting to have more conversations. We're going to see a ton of spec scripts come in pretty much the second the strike ends."

Eager to plug slate holes and make up for three months of lost time, studios are expected to jump in and buy spec scripts from top-tier writers quickly and at high prices soon after the walkout ends. "It could turn into a feeding frenzy," said another studio exec.

One top agent cautioned, though, that striking writers haven't been as busy as some have claimed. Reports were called far-fetched that companies like United Artists immediately saw 2,500 scripts pour in when they signed interim deals

Still, others recalled that the 1988 WGA strike created a mad dash, though they noted that the spec script market was just evolving then. This time, studios are accustomed to buying spec scripts and could snatch them up faster.

While the WGA's strike rules allow the penning of spec scripts, they must be genuine specs. They can't be derived from any conversations, however informal, or any existing relationships between a writer and a struck company.

Many players on all sides of the spec market said that despite three months of pent-up anticipation, they would proceed with caution.

On the studio side, sources said they were not sure yet of the quality of available material because they have had few, if any, conversations with writers and their reps about their work during the labor stoppage. Some also were leery of agents who might try to push through projects that weren't ready.

For their part, a number of agents said that despite the potential for an easy paycheck, they didn't want to close a deal for their clients until they had a better sense of studio game plans.

"There's been so much change at the studios since the strike began," one agent said. "I want to get back to work and get my clients going again, but how much do I want (a client) to be the guinea pig?"

A number of studios have evolved during the past three months. Paramount has seen a shuffle at the top with the promotion of John Lesher; more ominously, a chilly air was blowing across New Line on Tuesday after Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes alluded to cutbacks. Several agents said they wanted a little more poststrike dust to settle before signing any big deals.

Film studios — in a manner similar to, if more modest than, their television counterparts — also have used the strike to rethink development.

"The good news and the bad news is that the strike has allowed studios to stop and think and say, 'Let's see how the movies are really performing,' " one agent said.

The prospects of those specs that do emerge after the strike could be affected by a number of other factors, though.

Studios that snapped up pitches by the boatload before the strike began are expecting scripts based on those pitches to come in soon after the strike is resolved — though there could be some time lag because writers were not supposed to be working on such projects during the walkout.

Once those scripts are evaluated, the studios will decide which projects to fast-track, which in turn could affect how many new projects they decide to take on.

"There will be a lot of rummaging around to see what we really have," a studio source said. "I think a lot of people don't really know."

Movies in development or preproduction also will get a huge boost as writers get back to work and new scribes are attached.

Mark Johnson, a producer on Walden Media's "Chronicles of Narnia" movies, said a resolution couldn't come fast enough for the third movie in the franchise, set to start shooting this year. Johnson added that he thinks "the floodgates will open" for projects in active development or preproduction that need a little script help.

Warners' "Justice League," Columbia's "Edwin A. Salt" and the next installment in the "Fast and the Furious" franchise are expected to fall into this category.

Many in the development community also were expecting that with a three-month setback, not all material will be created equal.

"It's going to be about the finished script — the truly finished script — and the go project," said one agent. "There's going to be a feeding frenzy, but it's not going to be for all kinds of material."

Leslie Simmons in Los Angeles contributed to this report.