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.
When did this crisis begin? It all seemed to begin with the writers' strike, which coincided with the cash crunch coming out of the bank collapse. While the writers were happily picketing the studio gates, being fed muffins by their agents, and getting honked at by passing strangers, inside their hornet's nests, studio heads were creating a new business model. No deals, no guarantees, no one-offs. Franchises only. Writers aren't happy? Let's cut everyone's deals! Who needs producers while we're at it? Our execs will be producers, and we will hire them for nothing when we need them. Look over the horizon, money is disappearing! Whoa!
It's coo-coo time, and everyone is tearing his hair out. Many are already bald, and pretending to have shaved their heads. One buyer—an independent financier—told me he has a sign in his office that says "No D"—short for "No Dramas." All he wants is comedies and thrillers for kids. Fatal Attraction—For Kids. Body Heat—For Kids. Fresh. Thanks. Thank goodness for television, where drama can temporarily hide from these people and not be killed off for good.
So I'm sitting at my desk, reading submissions. I had read about the biggest sale of the week on the front page of Variety, and it almost sent me diving head-first into the Silver Lake outside my window.
The story revolves around Zack Overkill, who has entered the witness protection program after testifying against his boss, Black Death. He's forced to take a drug that strips him of his powers, but he regains his strength when he experiments with new drugs. Soon he's a masked vigilante fighting villains.
But before I jumped, I called my son. He said, "You, too, can play this game. Look through your submission pile for something you might not have otherwise taken seriously." He was right. Again.
I had just gotten a sci-fi submission from the coolest chick in France. Post-apolalyptic, the Underground was fighting the FusedHumans. Excitedly I dug in. It was smart. It was fresh. It was unique. The story was great, but no super powers.
I had to pass.
Maybe Jello: the Movie.
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