My assistant Matt went to the WGA panel last night, and took notes for readers who couldn’t make it.

All panelists agree that the business is shrinking. Development slates are being cut in half. According to J.C. Spink, that means half the (400m?) dollars usually being paid out to writers and a much tougher market for selling. Studios walk away from deals much more easily than they used to.

Yes, but movies are doing well, right? Box office receipts are on the up and up.

True, but the motherships (Time Warner/GE etc.) suck out that revenue and use it to prop up other flagging sectors. So that money doesn’t go back into development or the pockets of writers. Also, Navid McIlhargey notes that while theatrical has made a comeback, DVD sales have dropped by roughly 30%. That means four things:

  1. The financial models studios look at before greenlighting a picture are skewed. (Depending on various factors, DVD revenue used to be equal to or greater than domestic theatrical revenue.) The projections for break-even are falling short on movies that might have been easily greenlit a few years ago. One way to counter that is by exploiting the international marketplace, which translates to more big action, (male) star-driven movies.

  2. Development gets shafted. David Beaubaire warns that you only get one shot at getting a movie through the system. If a script is passed up for greenlight that isn’t ready or doesn’t have a crystal clear idea for the marketing department to sell, that’s the end of the line. No going back into the development cycle for reworking.

  3. Pre-branded material still rules the game. Amusement park rides, board games (CLUE), comic books will continue to win out over original material. Spink joked that they’re working up a treatment for STAIRMASTER, just because it’s a known entity. Hensleigh relayed (venomously) having to option a graphic novel similar to an idea he developed separately because, “The fucking idiots need a pre-branded thing to look at.” Spink doesn’t see an end to this until the financial system breaks down. It’s working too well.

  4. Marketing is getting more involved in development. This fact sets writer Jonathan Hensleigh (THE ROCK, ARMAGGEDON) on fire. “Scripts can die a death of a thousand cuts when marketing starts giving notes,” Hensleigh warns, noting that it’s bad enough to deal with notes from ten young development execs at a time.

McIlhargy has run scripts by his marketing department for notes or approval before passing it up to his bosses because their input is so critical.

What does this all mean to the writer with hopes of getting a studio movie made?

Concept is king. Write Big Ideas, well executed.

The executives were eager to argue that Hollywood’s not entirely a dehumanized assembly line, regurgitating and repackaging ideas.

Beaubaire believes that just because you’re reworking ideas from the past doesn’t mean it can’t be fresh, good and entertaining. In order for a movie to go forward, “I have to love the script,” Beaubaire says, adding that it must contain a “universally relatable idea” with better-than-stock characters.

Derek Dauchy requires a connection with the material before he tries to make a movie of it. He needs to feel there’s a good reason to make that movie, to put it out into the world.

McIlhargey cautions that with so many other options, there has to be a sense of immediacy behind making that movie at that time. There’s plenty of good material. Immediacy is, “The number one thing we look at before we pass it up.”

Advice for aspiring writers

J.C. Spink: Writers have to be talented, collaborative and better at one thing. “Do one thing that distinguishes you.” Sadly, you’re “better off being the mediocre writer who’s good in a room” than the great writer who has a tough time coming out of their shell. Because of the Hollywood information “matrix,” if your script is good and marketable it will find the light of day. Competitions, the Nicholl excepted, are useless. There’s too many to keep track of. Successful people fail more than they succeed.

David Beaubaire: As good as a script is, decision makers aren’t reading scripts. His job is to make sure they understand it and want to make it. His name isn’t on the movies, he does this because he loves movies and wants to make the best, most successful ones he possible can. In that process, no one is out to get the writer. Don’t worry about studio politics or what’s hot. Worry about delivering what you would want to see. Making movies is a game, but it’s golf not tennis.

Navid McIlhargey: Before you write, ask yourself if this is a movie you would pay good money to see. Will it hold a release date? Then write with conviction.

Derek Dauchy: If you can pitch and understand it as a title, it’s gigantic. If you can sell it with a logline, great. If you need a paragraph, you’re in trouble.

Jonathan Hensleigh: You are the most important person in the process. Creation of fictional worlds is the engine room of this industry. Of course, no one will treat you like you’re the most important person. Once you’ve given all your blood to a project and they show you the door to bring on another writer, walk away without bitterness. (He was bitter about other writers coming onto THE ROCK but admits now that Aaron Sorkin and the rest improved a bunch of scenes).

Q&A

  1. Should writers do unpaid rewrites and polishes before handing in a script to the studio? Across the board, yes. Every panelist, especially Hensleigh, noted that writers have to ignore WGA rules and do as much work as needed to get the script in shape.

  2. Does the success of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE change anyone’s viewpoint about what audiences want to see? Across the board, no. Every year Fox Searchlight does a great job marketing a small movie. It’s what they do; we’re in a different business.

  3. Is making a short and putting it on Youtube a waste of time? Across the board, yes. Don’t do it. Write something good instead.

  4. Biggest turnoffs when reading new material? Across the board: lack of original concept.

Keep in mind this is an all-male panel of big Hollywood studio filmmakers. Consider other viewpoints before dumping all ideas that aren’t as commercial as THE B TEAM.