“The Hollywood producer changes the director because the film’s not working.  He changes the writer because it’s Tuesday.”– Film industry joke

Studio development and the distribution machine

Hollywood Studio SystemHollywood studios are basically distribution companies that bankroll both development and production within one integrated company.  Their strength lies in the fact that they see success in terms of the market, but this is often their weakness as well because it makes them unlikely to veer away from successful known formulas.  They want a sure thing and don’t take the same risks that independent filmmakers do.  The internet sidesteps the traditional distribution network and threatens the studios with loss of control, but they cannot afford to ignore it.  The US studio system offers the producer the advantage of the “one-stop shop,” with finance, production, release, and distribution.

Competing for attention

The studios may have up to 5000 projects in some stage of development at any one time, so projects fight for attention and are subject to changes in both corporate strategy and executive leadership.  Overbearing management can sometimes also be an issue, and these problems can result in the rapid turnover of writers on a project.

Studios acquire projects for various reasons, not always in order to develop the film to full release.  They may want to build a relationship with a particular writer or director or they may want to eliminate a competing project.  Hollywood lawyer John Cones explains: “Some in the industry actually accuse the studios from time to time of intentionally acquiring rights to certain projects, just to eliminate the competition of a project that is similar to one already in development, without, of course, informing those tied to the doomed project.”

Changing markets

Traditionally, the US studios only paid close attention to their home market.  Income from overseas was just icing on the cake.   Now some film and TV studios are targeting up-and-coming markets, especially the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).  Universal, Fox, Sony, and Disney support local language film production or acquisition programs, although Warner Brothers and Paramount closed their international acquisitions groups a few years ago.

Studio ‘output’ deal and ‘first look’ deal

Many projects are not acquired outright by the studio.  A producer may be offered an output deal or multi-picture deal, which is a formal or informal agreement whereby all of his or her projects will be offered to that studio, before anyone else, on a first look basis for production financing.

The first look requires the development costs and overheads to be covered by the studio; the studio then gets access to the producer and his talent network, but the producer can still offer the project around to other studios if the first studio rejects it.   During this process, the producer has to avoid alienating his writers, their agents, potential directors, and stars, as well as executives at the various studios involved.

For the studio executive in charge of such a deal, risks definitely exist, as author and ex-Lucas film executive Jeffrey Olin says: “The threat of taking a project across the street to a bitter rival and having the ability to actually produce it with them is very real.  Hollywood is littered with the lore of so-and-so passed on that project and he had the courage/vision to get behind X.  Careers are literally made and broken on these decisions.”

Even after a film is accepted under the first look deal, more must be done.  The final script draft has to be written, and the cast, director, and budgets must be approved.  All of these actions require  creative input from the studio.   Once the film is accepted for production, the producer cannot offer it to another studio.

Championing by the studio executive

If one of the key executives who championed the project suddenly departs for another job, this can mean big trouble for projects, even when they have already been accepted for production.  Writer Rob Sprackling explains this challenge: “Loads of wonderful scripts and wonderful films that really should have got made were all missed out on and never got made, because someone moved on, and a new executive came in and canned the whole thing.”

This scenario may put a project into turnaround, where a project is offered to other studios, but often the development costs are so high that the money cannot be recouped.

Culture of hiring and firing writers

Writers on independent film projects occupy a position of greater power and stability than writers employed on a Hollywood-style project, where the overall budget for the picture is in the hands of one studio.  Studios often change writers in the middle of a project, but those writers are rewarded with higher payments, as explained by film journalist Mike Goodridge of Screen International: “Writers are basically treated in a different way in Los Angeles.  They’re paid lots of money, and they rewrite and rewrite other people’s material.  That’s how they survive and make a living.  They have to develop a really tough skin.  But if they’re being paid fifty grand to write a new version of a script or rewrite somebody else’s, they will just do it.”

Directors on studio projects can also be suddenly replaced, which is less likely to happen in the indie sector.  With so many writing changes on one script, conflict can emerge about which writer gets the writing credit(s).  Often the original, now-fired writer will still insist on screen credits for a script that has been rewritten from scratch.

Our research identified 5 types of films distributed in the US and their characteristics:

Blockbuster Hollywood

Format and Content

  • Takes the form of action thriller, superhero movie, major releases that are often remakes, sequels, TV adaptations, or based on computer games or toys, or animated films with A-list voice talent
  • Uses well-known or unknown directors with equal frequency
  • Caters to a mainstream or niche fan audience
  • Focuses on spectacle and action over content

Release and Distribution

  • Distributed internationally by major US studios, with major marketing campaigns behind them
  • Involves a huge investment and thus can make or break a studio

Development and Business Model

  • Developed by studios or major producers with studio overhead deals (Anglo-Hollywood films fall into this category)
  • Uses a creative business model or new technology (i.e. Pixar)
  • Targets mainstream audience not interested in action or horror
  • Remains out of festival circuit

Mainstream Hollywood

Format and Content

  • Take the form of recognizable genres (i.e. romantic comedies, thrillers, non-blockbuster science fiction, dramas)
  • Sold on a major star’s name, but not on a famous director
  • Contain content that is usually not very original, but can spark a series of romantic comedies or buddy movies
  • Make reliable income, are heavily test-screened, and are not very memorable

Release and Distribution

  • Timed to coincide with a rival studio’s blockbuster
  • Distributed internationally through US studio, with specialized marketing to target audience

Development and Business Model

  • Developed by studios or producers with overhead deals
  • Produces original screenplays, sometimes adaptations (i.e. thriller novels or mainstream novels)

Specialist Hollywood

Format and Content

  • Takes the form of art house films with Oscar aspirations (i.e. Anglo-American films like Atonement)
  • May become mainstream, but large profits are unlikely
  • Hires a variety of director types including high budget (i.e. Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Jackson), low budget (i.e. Wes Anderson), or international directors (i.e. Guillermo del Toro)
  • Features serious actors and auteurs
  • Based on high-profile literary novels, stage plays (including musicals), or auteur-backed original screenplays; often epic in scale
  • Caters to an audience ranging from mainstream viewers to film fans
  • Features creative filmmaking, sometimes transforming a genre

Release and Distribution

  • Distributed by a studio that wants to gain respect in the industry, locally or with specialist studio distribution and a limited marketing campaign in some US cities
  • Capitalizes on festival circuit as high-profile entrants

Development and Business Model

  • Developed by studios wanting to court key talent or earn awards to enhance reputation
  • Caters to a strong niche, but with downward pressure on budgets, some companies, like The Weinstein Company, are co-producing with European countries and broadcasters as a way of bringing production costs down.

Specialist indie

Format and Content

  • Takes the form of art house American indie films, which are often low budget and made by NY companies
  • Features quirky content with a European aesthetic (i.e. Juno, Sideways)
  • Casts unknown or character actors, but the director or auteur may have a following
  • Caters to an audience comprised largely of film buffs
  • Based on original screenplays or adaptations of books or plays

Release and Distribution

  • Needs festivals like Sundance and Cannes to get noticed and picked up for distribution
  • Distributed by specialist art house distributors
  • Opens only in NYC, LA and other key US cities

Development and Business Model

  • Developed by the production company, with little studio support.  The UK has some public subsidy for this, but the US does not.
  • Faces difficulties based on Hollywood studios cutting back on specialist acquisition
  • Features creative and challenging filmmaking that has no great effect on other film development

Foreign acquisitions

Format and Content

  • Features foreign language films and British films
  • Casts unknown (to US audiences) actors speaking a foreign language; directors are not known in the US or is an auteur with a specialist following (i.e. Michael Haneke)
  • Caters to film buffs who will tolerate subtitles
  • Based on original screenplays, often by auteur or writer-director, or adaptations of foreign novels/plays

Release and Distribution

  • Occurs through the art house circuit
  • Relies on Cannes, Berlin, or Toronto film festivals to get picked up for distribution

Development and Business Model

  • Experiences problems because of the shutdown of Hollywood specialist distribution arms
  • Features creative, challenging, and original filmmaking that does not have great effect on US film development

A writer who preferred to remain anonymous summed up the role of the creative writer like this: “In the UK, the writers are more treasured, like you get in theatre, where the writers are normally retained, and it’s rare you’re completely shunted off your own script.  In America, they (writers) are more sacked, moved around and dispensed with.”