BIZ TIP TUESDAY:

STUDIOS & PRODUCERS & MOVIES
(OH MY!)


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Over on my blog when I do Trailer Tuesday I often look at Hollywood films of the Golden Age when studios ruled, and point out the difference between films from one studio and the type of films made by another studio. Often there are studios that specialized in one genre that ended up making films in a genre they were not adept at because the genre had become popular - and the results can be a mixed bag. Columbia specialized in glossy entertainment, and their attempts at Film Noir are hit or miss with GILDA and LADY FROM SHANGHAI as the best of the lot... and some films like DEAD RECKONING suffering from a "gloss" injection. When you think of Musicals from the Golden Age you tend to think of MGM, but I've mentioned my love for the more gritty, blue collar musicals that Warner Brothers turned out. Warner Brothers is my favorite studio - and their blue collar roots showed no matter what the genre. THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT is one of my favorite films, and the poster is in rotation on my office wall. I've always wanted to write movies for Warner Brothers (HARD EVIDENCE is my only Warners movie so far), but I have to admit I love the Universal fanfare, and wouldn't mind hearing that heavy percussion music before one of my films...

But the business has changed over the years. In the old days, the Studios produced all of the movies themselves. Now studios are mostly in the film financing and distribution business. They arrange for the financing and then take a movie and get it into cinemas. They advertise it, they collect the money from the cinemas, and they operate like a bank for producers.

New writers often don't understand how the business has changed, and think that studios are still actually making the movies... and often want to know how to get a screenplay to a studio. Which brings us to the subject of this tip - the relationship between studios and producers and how we fit in as writers.

UNDER CONTRACT

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The big clue to how Hollywood has changed is the closing credits on a movie. In the old days, there were a handful of credits at the front of the film, and that was it! Those front credits listed the department heads - the key creative people on the film - but none of the actual crew members. That's because everyone was under contract to the studio - just paid employees like the guy working behind the counter at McDonalds - just doing a job for a monthly wage. But back in the 1960s things began changing and studios let go of their hourly employees and began hiring them as independent contractors on a film-by-film basis. Why pay for an electrician or stunt man when they weren't working? As independent contractors they made their own deals, and those deals usually included *credits* at the end of the film. Now those hundreds of employees who were just salaried employees were getting a credit on the film... and those end credits went from noting which actor played what role to a never ending credit crawl that is guaranteed to burst the viewer's bladder. You sit through those endless credits, waiting for the film to be over so that you can leave, and it takes forever even when they split the FX credits into 4 columns on the screen. Though it is fun to play the "spot the strange name" game or "movie stars now working as grips" game or "is that the star's brother?" game. But all of those credits are *independent contractors* - and that's why there are so many.

Also back in the good old days, writers were under contract to the studios. If you've seen SUNSET BLVD, they have scenes in the "Writer's Building" on the Paramount lot. All of these slot-like offices that look more like walk in closets than someplace large enough for someone to work. The studio would hire a writer, give them an office, and assign them a film - even a big name writer would be given a film to write, whether they liked it or not... as you can see in BARTON FINK. And as you've seen in SUNSET BLVD, often a writer could pitch an original idea to the head of the story department or sell a treatment or do something else to try and control what job the studio stuck them with. But the Writer's Buildings are gone, now... well, they're actually still there, but often rented out to smaller producers on the lot. I've had meetings in the old Warner Bros Writer's Building a few times. Producers are now in the Writers Buildings, and writers are independent contractors...

TEN STEPS TO PRODUCTION

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Though this is a generalization - Studios don't hire writers anymore, Producers do. Here's how it works:

1) A producer makes a "housekeeping deal" for their production company with a studio. The studio gives them an office on the studio lot, and often pays a certain amount of overhead. As recently as a decade ago it was common for the studio to give the production company a "discretionary fund" as part of their overhead so that they could buy and develop screenplays on their own. These days, studios are cutting way back - and many of those "discretionary funds" have dried up - production companies are no longer free to buy or option or develop anything they want on the studio's allowance. Now it's more common for a production company with a housekeeping deal to have to take each project "in to the studio" for approval before they are given any money to option or buy a screenplay or other property. That means less money for screenwriters and more free rewrites and free options and free everything else... which sucks.

2) In exchange for a "housekeeping deal" deal, the production company agrees to make movies which will be distributed by the studio. Usually there is a "first look deal" where the producer must submit their projects to the studio who is paying their overhead. The studio then can either agree to finance the film, or let the producer find another studio or funding source who may be interested. There are also exclusive deals with a studio, where a producer can *only* work with the studio paying their bills. One of the other things that has happened in the last decade is that studios are often just renting offices to production companies and taking a first look deal. Instead of the studios giving an office, they rent it out and make money... and still get a first look at projects for distribution. These days, there are so many alternative ways to fund a film that sometimes these production companies find funding from some other source and just use the studio as a distribution company. I've written screenplays for some of the producers who formed the notorious Franchise Films company, which piggy-backed on another production company's distribution deal with Warner Brothers. Franchise found all of their financing from international pre-sales, and then Warner Bros gave these films domestic distribution. Films like THE WHOLE 9 YARDS and BATTLEFIELD EARTH. Franchise wasn't even on the lot - they had offices in a building on Ventura Blvd down the street from me. A few miles from the studio. But whether the production company is on the lot or offlot in some office building on the floor above a real estate broker, that's who buys scripts these days. Not studios, production companies.

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3) So, you submit your script to a producer or production company. The producer likes it and either buys it themselves (out of that "discretionary fund" - money they can spend however they like) or they "take it in to the studio" and have the studio buy it for them. If the studio buys it for them, that project is stuck at that studio even if the studio decides they never want to make the film. And the studio decides what they will pay for development of the screenplay - so there are limits to what work will be covered by the studio, and that often leads to those free rewrites. Everyone hates free rewrites, but they are the result of being an independent contractor instead of an employee. Not only are *writers* independent contractors, now Production Companies are independent contractors - and that always leads to people working for free. It's kind of an inverse "trickle down theory" where the studio gives the production company less money, so the production company has to give the writer less money. The best way to do that is to cut out some of the rewrite costs by telling the writer that "We can't take it to the studio like this, they'll kill the project (and they really will), so could you just do this one rewrite for free... it'll get us approval at the studio and that will lead to the next paid rewrite". Sometimes. But when a studio buys the screenplay for a production company, it's stuck on the lot and the only way to get the script away from the studio is if someone pays the studio the cost of the script and the cost of any overhead the studio claims is involved in the project ("turn around fees"). This gets expensive!

4) Okay - let's say the studio buys your script for the production company. Next the producer sets up the film. They get the script rewritten a bunch of times, they sign actors & a director and maybe even pick the time they want to start shooting. They take all of this to the studio. The studio then funds the movie or not. Sometimes they don't fund the movie due to one or more of the attachments not justifying the cost. Often there is all kinds of wrangling between the production company and studio over the budget. If there's a star who can open a movie attached, they studio will eventually put up the money... unless the project is a dog. A few years ago there was a script bouncing around town with a big movie star attached, but no studio wanted it! The project was a gritty drama, with almost no chance of making its money back even after the star offered to do the film for scale (Screen Actor's Guild minimum). The whole reason why we have BATTLEFIELD EARTH is because, despite Travolta being signed to star, no studio wanted to make that film. It bounced around until it landed at Franchise - which often funded movie star's pet projects that every other studio had passed on. They found the money, and the film came out through Warner Brothers (who got a movie "for free" and only had to distribute it and collect their distribution fees). Warner Brothers passed on *funding* the film, but gladly took a fee and % of box office to distribute the film.

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5) After the film is funded - by the studio or by an outside funding source - the production company makes the film. If the production company is on the lot, they usually have access to the studio's post production facilities - editing and dubbing and other things. But these days studios often charge for these things, and it's not unusual to have post production work done wherever it is least expensive. A film might have special effects done in China and music recorded in Eastern Europe and other things done in other parts of the world. The Production Company needs to find the least expensive place to shoot the film (which is why it's not usual for some film that takes place in New York to be shot in Canada or even Eastern Europe), then find the least expensive places to do all of the post production work - the director often Skyping with the technicians from an office in Los Angeles. Anything to get the film finished on budget!

6) The production company then hands the finished film over to the studio for distribution.

7) The studio then gets the film into cineams, buys ads, gets the stars on talk shows, etc.

8) When the film makes money, the studio collects the money. The producer gets a % of that money (as do big stars and some directors). But the studio gets the rest. They keep whatever return they get on their investment (for funding the film). The studio also charges for distribution and overhead and all kinds of other things, which is why you see those stories about some huge hit film like a HARRY POTTER film *lost money* after they did that creative accounting.

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9) Which brings us to "Monkey points" - You're wondering if writers get a % of the profits? Writers get "monkey points" (ie: net points) which are a percentage of the profits (if any). As we all know from the Art Buchwald / COMING TO AMERICA case, a film can make $300 million and still show no profits! It's that damned studio overhead! The studio finds a way to keep any money that a movie earns through creative book keeping, so that % of profits your lawyer got for you is probably worthless. I wouldn't be pricing Ferraris *or* Hyundais with the money I get from that. From Lawrence Block's old column on writing novels in Writers Digest I learned this valuable rule: whatever you get for an advance is probably all you are going to get, so don't expect to make more. Hey, if you do, that's great... but never expect it. Same is true with screenwriting - whatever you are paid is probably going to be it... don't expect more. If you have a step deal and they pay you for the treatment, don't *expect* the project to go to script. Hey, it may go to script... but it may not. If your deal guarantees that they pay all of the steps, *great* - but don't expect the production bonus because only 10% of purchased and developed screenplays ever get made... that production bonus is a long shot! And "monkey points"? The longest shot there is!

10) Hey, you've been paid for your script, what do you care?

All of this has been the long winded version of why you are *not* going to query or submit to a studio, but target *production companies* and make sure you focus on the specific person at the production company who deals with screenplays (Head Of Development). Whether the studio fanfare is Warner Brothers or Universal or Paramount, writers begin their deals with production companies not studios. Read the trades and find out what company actually produced the film. Variety has a feature every year called Facts On Pacts that shows you which production company has a deal with which studio. Here's a link: FACTS ON PACTS.


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