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Sony puts near-freeze on new scripts, movie development

The studio will still pay for priority projects and for new ones it deems highly desirable. But until April, it will largely hold off on buying and developing source material.

October 09, 2009|Ben Fritz and Claudia Eller

As Hollywood continues to look for ways to cut costs amid an array of economic pressures, Sony Pictures has become the latest studio to severely curtail the amount of money it spends to acquire and develop new movie projects.

Sony has told in-house producers and the movie community that it will largely hold off on buying new scripts and other source material, such as books, to turn into movies until its new fiscal year begins in April. It also won't be paying writers to start work on many projects recently set up at the studio.

As with all rules in Hollywood, of course, there are exceptions. Sony will still shell out for existing priority projects and for new ones it deems highly desirable, as it did this summer when it paid $60 million for the rights to the Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It," which unexpectedly became available after the singer's death. The studio also recently engaged "Seabiscuit" writer-director Gary Ross to rewrite and potentially direct "Spider-Man" spinoff "Venom."

Sony is the second studio recently to pull back its investment on movie development. Universal Pictures has also significantly reduced expenditures on new projects until January, when its next fiscal year begins.

Though it's common for studios to run through their annual development budgets earlier than planned, it's somewhat unusual that Sony has done so halfway through its year.

"We have a healthy development roster and we know our slate for 2010 and well into 2011," Sony spokesman Steve Elzer said. "In the future, given our needs, we will be buying less but will also step up to the plate when we believe there is great material to be acquired."

Unlike Universal, whose move to slash development spending has come during a dismal year at the box office, Sony has had a strong run recently with such hits as "Julie & Julia," "District 9" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."

Sony is apparently looking to maximize profits from those films by not spending money on projects it may not need. The studio is also hoping to do well with "This Is It," which starts a two-week run Oct. 28 and has already sold out hundreds of screenings via online ticketing services.

In planning its movie slate, Sony, like its rivals, has a pool of hundreds of projects already in development from which it can pick and choose.

But with the industry's ongoing belt tightening, all studios are reassessing the need to spend tens of millions of dollars a year to buy scripts, pitches and other material that doesn't have a high likelihood of making it to the big screen.

Studios have been known to buy projects with no immediate plans to produce them, just to keep them out of the hands of rivals. In the current climate, however, such competitive pressures have lessened.

According to several agents, every major studio has indicated that it plans to cut back on yearly development budgets used to acquire new projects.

In addition, nearly every studio has said it intends to produce fewer films than it has in the last several years.

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ben.fritz@latimes.com

claudia.eller@latimes.com

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