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D -Girls : The Women Behind the Scripts

August 23, 1987|ANNA McDONNELL | Free - lance writer McDonnell is a former manager of movies and miniseries at Columbia Pictures Television and was military liaison on the film "Red Dawn." and

Depending on whether or not you liked high school, breakfast at Hugo's in West Hollywood on a weekday morning feels like old home week or . . . your worst nightmare.

You sense a Hollywood tribal rite in progress. There's a perceptible lull in the racket as eyes shift to you coming through the door. The tables are filled with the up-and-coming, the flavors-of-the-week, sipping fresh O.J. ($2.50) or "coffee of the day" ($1.50 a cup). Sixty to a sitting, the crowd is young, casually hip. They dress strikingly alike, with no bright colors to disrupt the wash of gray, white and black.

You get the unmistakable feeling that behind the glancing eyes is the nagging question: "Should I know who this is?"

Like the garlicky aroma of the $4.95 house specialty, Pasta Mama (Tagliallini and eggs--yes, people do eat it for breakfast), snatches of conversation waft by: "Not enough real jeopardy" . . . "He's always been nice to me, but . . . " . . . "In turnaround" . . . "I'm really passionate about this project" . . . "Great character arcs" . . . "Between you and me. . . . "

Throughout Hugo's (and the rites also are held at other favorite breakfast venues like Il Fornaio in Bev Hills, the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood and the Hideaway at the Beverly Wilshire), there is a pervading sense of anxious energy, as if every foot is tapping restlessly.

Hollywood's subcultures are represented here--agents, studio executives, producers--but most of all, there are the D-girls.

"D-girl" is the movie industry sobriquet for a woman who works in the murky world of "development." Men dominate most of the power jobs in the industry--directing, producing, running studios--but women reign supreme in the Big D, development.

There are probably about 100 D-girls in Hollywood. Perhaps a fourth are really young men, but women are so prevalent in development that even the men often are referred to as "D-girls"--and even appear that way on many agency lists.

(We aren't counting those women who work in development for studios. They're a subculture unto themselves, with their own rules, dress codes, language and power struggles.)

The standard line is that D-girls "can't say yes, but won't say no." Power in Hollywood is the ability to say "yes." While unable to green-light projects, D-girls are reluctant to reject them. No one wants to be remembered as the person who turned down the next "Platoon" or "Terminator."

The term D-girl has evolved into common usage in recent years and represents at once nothing more than a joking reference to their lack of power in a power-mad world and a telling reminder of the sexism that pervades the movie business.

(For the real female power pack, see the article on Page 20 on the women who run the production companies for major female stars.)

D-girls work for producers, directors and stars. They ferret out material that the boss can make into movies. They read scripts, take "pitch" meetings (where writers outline their ideas), solicit material from agents and read more scripts.

A D-girl puts together "script notes" (comments about the script and suggestions for its improvement) and acts as interpreter for the boss' ideas.

She gears her likes and dislikes to her employer's taste. Like everybody in Hollywood, she is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of "heat." That is, she might spend six months looking for a small family drama for her boss to direct . . . then "Lethal Weapon" opens big over the weekend and come Monday, she's desperately seeking buddy-comedy-action scripts.

In short, D-girls are the gate-keepers of Hollywood. Few producers or directors will deign to look at material that hasn't first been approved by their D-girls.

The D-girls come with various backgrounds but probably were born somewhere other than Los Angeles. They were drawn here by vague notions of wanting to work in movies--but they're invariably energetic, committed, ambitious.

Some examples:

Paige Simpson, director of development for producer Andy Karsch (currently developing "Prince of Tides" from the Pat Conroy novel, plus others) grew up in Chicago. After getting her master's degree in arts administration from Indiana University, she knew she wanted to be in the film business, and "decided to move where the movie business really is."

Simpson, who lives with her boyfriend (a TV executive) in Westwood, has been, in the industry vernacular, "courting" a special writer recently. After work on a recent day, she flew to San Francisco (reading en route the writer's latest essay in Harper's magazine) to take him to dinner. They spent the next day going over his notes and research before she hopped on a plane back home. She hopes the extra effort will land her a development deal.

She was at a Bennington College writer's conference in Vermont this summer to meet young fiction writers and established novelists. "Out of that, I think there are a couple of novelists I'm going to pursue to see if they have a film in them."

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