The Market—or what we laughingly call the current buyer's market for scripts, ideas, books, vid-links, or any underlying material that can be developed into a movie—is in the most miserable shape I have experienced in my 20-something-year career. It's close to moribund. The job that producers, agents, and now literary managers must do in selling their screenwriters' wares to studios has never been more difficult. One young such manager—my son Oly, in fact—recently said the following amazing sentence to me when I told him about a spec script I loved and was trying to sell: "Mom, the idea of a script selling because it is good is soooo 1993."
That pretty much sums it all up. A little patronizing? Yes. But better to be patronized than left in the dust.
For a stunned moment, I sat on the phone in a time warp, realizing the error of my foolish ways. After this—let's call it a "come-to-Jesus comeuppance"—I took an accounting of the current buying climate:
A script sells because:
1. It has "unaided awareness." In other words, you've heard about it many times (all your life?) before the studio's marketing department starts promoting it. It is a Mattel toy (since Transformers, the studios have bought Battleship, Lego, Oujia, and Candyland), a best-selling video game, a graphic novel, a comic book, or is a remake of something thought coolish (why?) like Clash of the Titans. Hasbro has more than 10 movies in development. We can't even count Marvel's.
2. It's just "blown up" on YouTube in its 3-minute form. No matter if it has a story, an author, a director anyone knows, or even a hook.
3. It has Shia LaBeouf, Taylor Lautner, Zac Efron, or a hot boy under 24 attached. This list also sometimes includes the Twilight or Gossip Girl boys. In Stretch Armstrong—also a movie based on a toy—Taylor Lautner is starring, so this is a double green light. How many of you even know who Mr. Lautner is? This is an ageist and angst-provoking question.
4. It has Sandra Bullock attached.
5. It has super-powers, super-villains, or super-heroes. Or super-something grounded in something pseudo-scientific—but not Kryptonite.
A script will not sell because:
1. It makes you cry.
2. It is wonderfully well written.
3. It is about something important or meaningful.
4. It is intelligent or otherwise hindered by nuance.
To prove my point, I ran into a terrific lit agent on the lot this week who told me about a recent conversation she had with colleagues where one bemusedly suggested selling Jello: The Movie. Then she suggested SweetTarts: The Movie. But believe me, this is not a laughing matter.
One of the biggest problems is that many of the studios have flat run out of money. This is something they used to say but didn't really mean. It used to mean, "We are temporarily out of money, or, we have no money for this." Now it's depressingly true. Sony and Universal are actually out of money. No one knows about Paramount, but it's rarely developing anything besides a franchise or a sequel, or something that costs $5.98 million, which is impossible with a studio overhead. Disney has had a recent compete reboot in personnel, and no one understands what their "mandate" is, or knows anyone who is running the joint, and they haven't done enough buying for us to read between the lines.