2020 hit many of us hard, and the entertainment biz was no exception. CI’s Jim Cirile interviewed agents and managers to get their take on where we’re at now and what the future looks like for spec scripts and pilots. Check it out below. Enjoy!
Originally published in The Wrap. Special Thanks to The Wrap for allowing the reprint.
Are Scripts Still Selling in a Year of Pandemic? | Pro Insight
“When studio executives tell you that they’ve run out of money for the quarter or whatever, they are just politely passing,” Underground producer/manager Trevor Engelson says
2020 charged out of the gate with middle fingers raised, and creative professionals of all kinds have been especially hard-hit. We asked some top lit managers and agents how they’re weathering the tsunami of the pandemic and media consolidation — and what moves they’re making to keep their clients employed.
“It’s no secret that the film business is hurting,” APA agent Adam Perry said. “The initial panic was what to do with everything in production or about to go into production. I felt terrible for creatives, studios, producers, etc., (who) pour their hearts and souls into what they do.” Then came the force majeures (projects that unraveled), layoffs and pay cuts pretty much everywhere. “At the agencies, while feature and TV lit were still able to keep working, other departments have been clobbered. I am fortunate to be on the lit side of things,” Perry observed. “Touring has taken the hardest hit.”
According to Alibi manager/producer Jake Wagner, the upside has been extra focus on development. “For the first half of the quarantine that was all anyone could do,” he said, adding that one bonus is that the biz has been running more efficiently since the advent of Zoom meetings. “No one gets stuck in traffic; not a single Zoom ever doesn’t start on time.” Yet spec sales slowed in 2020, in part because “people had been stockpiling in preparation for a possible writer’s strike,” noted APA agent Halle Mariner. “At the beginning of the year, we were all prepping for (it,) and people were buying so much so they had things (ready) to go into production.” And then the opposite happened. “Everybody was hoping that would be the thing for us to do all summer, because the writers would be on strike. That threw everyone off; we had to pivot.”
More development is a good thing for writers, right? “Most executives are still excited to read,” said Perry. “Just because they can’t buy as much right now doesn’t mean they can’t buy at all.” But in some cases, that excitement may also be because they know they don’t have to really consider submissions – Covid has given execs a spiffy new Get Out of Jail Free card. But Mariner’s still positive. “At least our clients (get those) general meetings. Especially for me, because I work with a lot of younger clients, to be able to sweep the whole town with their script and just get buzz that way is really nice.”
So how does one close the deal then? Rarely by sending out a “naked” (no attachments) script, as it turns out. “If you’re just going out with things that you were going out with eight or ten months ago,” said Underground producer/manager Trevor Engelson, “with just a really cool idea and a young writer who has a cool spec or whatever, you’re probably not going to sell it in this marketplace. But package it up with an undeniable showrunner and get a director or an actor on board, then who’s going to say no?” Engelson added that buyers right now will only grab up things that they must buy, “nothing that they want to buy. So it just has to be something where an executive needs to fear for their job if they pass on it.”
The Arlook Group’s Richard Arlook seconded, “I would probably never take a script with no elements, no matter how good it is, to a buyer or a financier.” He feels that doing so might kill the script. “In a best-case scenario they’re going to say, ‘Hey, this is really good. Can you get me a director?’ Or, ‘Go build it and then come back to me.’ In the ‘90s, you could just call up a buyer and say ‘cancel your lunch,’ and you’d have a deal if it was pretty good. Now, you have to really package things.” Wagner added, “the big sales you’ve seen (this year) are packages, right? So the nice thing was during this kind of slower time, we all had more time to package material.”
Still, fear and uncertainty are Skippy Super Chunk-thick in the air. “Everyone’s thinking, ‘Is this going to be safe to get made? Is there a path to production?’” observed Mariner. Buyers are trying to reassure folks that everything’s fine – yeah, for the huge names for whom it’s always fine. “In terms of the rest of the writers and the rest of us out there, it is a harder market,” she said. According to Perry, buyers have asked agencies not to submit as many projects. “So more often than not we’re pivoting for a packaging situation where we are still getting things out fairly wide to producers, but (we tell them,) ‘Look, we don’t expect this to be an old school spec situation. We want to get our clients read, we want to get them a lot of good meetings, and we want to find the right partner to further develop this project and help us with the director, actor and buyer conversations.’ We need to present them with stuff that’s bulletproof and make it nearly impossible for them to say no.”
Along with the new Covid excuses comes the hoary ol’ “Sorry, we’re out of money” chestnut. Does it have more validity now, given the state of theatrical and the layoffs we’re seeing? Engelson calls bullshit. “When studio executives tell you that they’ve run out of money for the quarter or whatever, they are just politely passing. There’s always money to be found in the right situation for the right script.”
Another divot in the new lit landscape 2020: few if any tent pole-sized sales or deals. “A lot of packages we’ve seen could be done for a price at a streamer,” said Wagner. “You don’t see the next Fast and the Furious being sold right now, projects of that size.” Fortunately, the big streamers have their purses open. According to Perry, competition is fierce between the big steamers.
“They’re going to make $100-plus million movies, and then decide, based on the finished product, whether to release it theatrically or on the network. It’s hyper-competitive; they all need to make a splash.” “There is a kind of pressure for the streamers that aren’t necessarily Netflix to really make an impact,” said Arlook. Streaming’s hunger for thrilling new content – especially projects with high-voltage packages – should continue to drive deals in the near future. As for theatrical, the Warners-HBO Max repercussions are still being felt, with no one really knowing yet what the landscape’s going to look like. Except that one way or another, movies and deals will still be made.
So while the new lit landscape may be pockmarked and cratered, fortunately, the industry has broken out the jetpacks. “Our business is still going to be robust because of the race for content,” said Perry.” If you look at the agency’s commission reports, it’s coming back.” Mariner concluded, “People are going to be dying to get out of their house and back into theaters. We just have to give them something good.”
Jim Cirile is a LA-based writer/producer and the founder of CoverageInk.com. His new animated horror movie “To Your Last Death” starring Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise and William Shatner, was the #2 most award-winning horror film of 2020 and is available on Prime, iTunes and Vudu in the US.