The Paradigm Shift—Part 1
Hollywood is making fewer movies than ever
Richard Arlook, The Arlook Group
Zach Cox, Circle of Confusion
Mark Hertogsohn, Gersh Agency
Keya Khayatian, UTA
Adam Perry, APA
Mitch Solomon, Magnet Management
Jake Wagner, Benderspink
“The writer’s strike (and) general economic downturn gave the studios a very good reason to streamline their business—make less movies and be choosier and take bigger risks for bigger profits.”—Zach Cox, Circle of Confusion
by Jim Cirile
Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends! It’s great to return to Agent’s Hot Sheet after a 2-year hiatus, and we’re psyched to be part of the Creative Screenwriting relaunch. For a decade, AHS brought you the inside skinny direct from the industry’s top literary agents and managers. Now we’re back, and as always, we promise no-punches-pulled critical intel for writers and creative professionals. So let’s get to it.
There’s been a sea change of late in the form of: Hollywood isn’t making any freaking movies anymore. Yes, I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, but not as much as you might think. Disney released 12 movies in 2012, down from 22 ten years earlier. Sony released 18 compared to 31 in 2002. The studios rarely even pay to make movies anymore—about 50% of movie financing is handled by an assemblage of hedge funds. Despite that, the studios seem increasingly reluctant to greenlight any movies not based on well-known source material. This is not good. Clearly, fewer movies means fewer opportunities for writers—fewer rewrites, assignments and spec sales—as well as reduced commissions for agents and managers. So we put it to the panel: how has Hollywood’s shrinkage affected your business?
“The simple answer is TV,” says manager Jake Wagner from Benderspink. “It’s true, they’re making less movies. So the hot feature writers are pitching TV. New writers are writing original spec pilots.” Wait a minute, is he saying that there’s no real point in writing spec feature screenplays anymore? Uh, yeah, he kinda is. “The only movies the studios want are (like) Paranormal Activity, the Jason Blum model (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0089658/)—low risk, high upside with just $1-5 million dollar budgets, or big, big, big giant swings, tent pole movies.” Wagner feels that original ideas or original specs are losing traction. “In 5 years it’s all going to be sequels, remakes and Marvel, Star Wars, Transformers. That’s where it is.”
Well, I said we’d bring you the skinny. I didn’t say it would be especially good news. “There is no spec market, certainly not as we once knew it,” says producer/manager Richard Arlook, who co-headed the Gersh Agency lit department for many years. “It slowed down after 9/11 and came to a screeching halt in ’08 after the last writer’s strike. In the glory days, the mid- to late-’90s, you would read specs, and if there was a good concept there was a market. But that’s been gone for a long time. Now, as opposed to just looking to sell things, you’re looking to make things, you’re looking to package things.” Arlook says there is still an open writing assignment market for a certain echelon of writer, and adds that most of his clients are working on assignments now.
But the paradigm shift has, in part, necessitated a change in the way Arlook does business. “I was an agent, but now my company is a personal management production and consulting business. One of the reasons I became a manager is that I could produce and consult; I could work in TV. I’m able to be a lot more entrepreneurial in terms of creating as many revenue streams as I can think of. Whereas if you’re working in a traditional agency (as) a motion picture lit agent, you better have a bunch of writers working on assignment, you better have the ability to package movies that get made or have the ability to sign talent, or do TV, or you’re going to be having a hard time.”
All of our panelists say they’re concentrating more on television than ever before. “Do you like money?” quips Mitch Solomon from Magnet Management, when queried as to whether or not he recommends his feature scribes write TV pilots. Wagner continues, “To me, TV is the future, TV is the now. There’s many more channels of original programming. There’s Xbox, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and more coming. TV is in a golden age right now with Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead—there are movie-type ideas on TV, specifically cable. Lots of great stuff we’re finding these days are spec pilots. I’m making moves with those. I think the business will go more towards packaging original spec pilots like it was with original spec features for a long time.” He adds that each television network will buy around 100 pitches this year. “It’s almost impossible to sell a movie pitch these days. TV is where I’m focused, and where I am focusing my clients as well.”
Manager Zach Cox from Circle of Confusion elaborates, “The writer’s strike (and) general economic downturn gave the studios a very good reason to streamline their business—make less movies, and be choosier and take bigger risks for bigger profits. Far and away, TV is the most exciting thing right now. Particularly for writers it should be, because it’s a writer’s medium and the writers are in control, and there’s no director telling them what to do.” Cox says that even though he was brought up on the feature side, he’s greatly expanding his TV exposure. He has to. “I’ve spent a lot of time and picked my colleagues’ brains to really figure out how to navigate TV and digital. I make it a point to meet with all the digital companies that I can. Anybody who is going to tell you they know what this industry is gonna look like in 5 to 10 years is full of shit. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it’s going to be a weird amalgamation of TV, film and digital.”
Stow away that noose, feature writers—there is some good news. There are feature opportunities still if you’re smart about what you write. “There are a lot of interesting new independent financiers,” says Cox. “(Don’t) spend too much time specing a $200 million epic. There are a lot of the $20 million and under financiers out there.” Cox mentions his recent deal with a fledgling company that plans to make three Sundance-type movies a year. “If that’s their initial foray, of course they have bigger dreams. But that’s a good place to start. (They’ll) build their profile as a company and parlay that into something bigger. There’s a lot of interesting stuff like that out there—people who fund stuff with VOD and so forth. That’s why you keep those budgets modest, and the more modifiable those budgets can be, the better.”
Be back in two weeks for The Paradigm Shift Part 2, in which we’ll talk about exactly how a feature writer can refocus into TV and expand into new media opportunities. Ciao for now!