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First Look At The Studios : Development Game: All's Fair

September 25, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

At Warner Bros., the confidential "Project Status Report" is a bulky 40-page document that neatly catalogues about 250 movie projects in various stages of development. If one were privy to this protected document, one would find everything from a completed comedy script called "The Adventures of Babe West," starring Goldie Hawn, to an abandoned idea titled simply "Yuppies."

At Walt Disney Productions, a similar tome called the "Red Book" contains 80 entries, including the sequel to "Splash" and an adventure-comedy about children who shrink, called "Teeny Weenies."

Known as "hot sheets" these development logs are the blueprints of the future for the studio production divisions. "In Development," an umbrella term that covers everything from a newly purchased novel to a ready-to-shoot script, is the movie business' equivalent of R&D (research and development) in the aerospace industry.

While the studios have yet to produce a stealth bomber, the costs of motion-picture development are nearly as staggering. From the initial pitch meeting (when a story is verbally outlined by writer to studio executive) to a completed rewrite, the average script costs about $150,000 to nurture. The average major studio spends $10 million-$20 million annually developing between 100 and 200 projects, only a handful of which will become actual movies (see accompanying chart).

"It's by far the least efficient part of the movie business," says Scott Rudin, the recently appointed president of production at 20th Century Fox. "It's simply indefensible."

The development game arguably provides the clearest evidence of how the movie business is truly unlike any other. Imagine a business where (for a price, of course) new and untested products are traded back and forth among competing companies. Imagine a world where inventors are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce state-of-the-art products only to see their wares abandoned once they come off the assembly line. Imagine a world where you can go to bed with a "green light" and wake up in "turnaround."

( Turnaround refers to the process where one studio releases a script to another. In turnaround, the studio picking up the script pays the studio owning the script a fee to take over the project. "The Big Chill," "Star Wars" and "American Graffiti" were picked up in turnaround.)

The development strategy at most studios is simple enough. To produce an annual crop of films, they need to develop at least five times as much material as they will use. The approach varies from studio to studio. While Warner Bros. typically has more than 250 projects in development, by the end of 1986 it will have distributed 20 movies. Disney, on the other hand will distribute 10 movies with about 80 projects on its development slate.

"It's a matter of keeping your eye on the ball," said one production executive at Disney who insisted on anonymity. "We don't feel you can pay proper attention to that many projects at once. I guarantee you some of their (Warner Bros.) top executives haven't heard of half the ideas on that list."

A look at the Warner Bros. hot sheet (dated Aug. 1) is dizzying. There are 30 titles under the letter M alone, beginning with "Machine" and ending with "My Summer With Mom." Under the T's there is an intriguing script called "The Transsexual, the Bartender and the Jewish American Princess." Under the C's, comedy fans would be thrilled to find that "Caddyshack II" is being developed.

"Warner Bros. believes that owning and developing properties is the heart of running a successful studio," says Robert Friedman, vice president of worldwide publicity for the studio. "Since most of our release schedule comes from development, we are quite pleased with the results."

While it is difficult to generalize, those who do business with the studios on a daily basis estimate that a script in the development pipeline remains a long-odds proposition. "The odds are about 20-1 against the movie getting made," explains John Ptak, a veteran William Morris agent. "A lot of it is in the 'elements.' You've got to have a good script, a bankable star or the right director and an awful lot of tenacity. Even then it can take years."

Studio politics complicate matters further still. When a new executive comes in to take over the production reins--as recently occurred at Universal and Columbia--competing executives immediately assume that most of the projects in development but not yet green-lighted are going to be dumped into turnaround. Hence, producers with active projects at Columbia and Universal are now nervously awaiting decisions while executives from competing studios are combing the Columbia and Universal hot sheets for projects they can pick off.

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