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An introduction to the ever-changing entertainment landscape

September 28, 2021
7 min read time

While the landscape of entertainment is constantly evolving, there’s no doubt it has changed drastically throughout the last decade.

Do you remember excitedly awaiting Netflix DVDs to arrive in the mail in sleek, red envelopes? Does it feel like ages ago? Because Netflix only split its DVD and streaming subscriptions 10 years ago, much to the displeasure of the 14 million customers still ordering DVDs at the time!

Even seven or eight years ago original programming from streamers like Netflix and Amazon was virtually unheard of; now Netflix has more than 200 million subscribers worldwide, and in less than a decade the streamers have emerged as juggernauts in the industry.

#MeToo, COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter: A cultural shift 

Beyond technological advances, environmental, political and social factors have also pushed the industry to change.

After the publication of the infamous New York Times Harvey Weinstein exposé, the business began to shift again in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Though not technically a strike, the Writers Guild of America, West went to battle with the Association of Talent Agents (ATA), a collection of more than 100 talent agencies. Thousands of writers fired their agents in order to restrict agency ownership in related production businesses and end the long-standing practice of packaging fees.

Facing a worldwide pandemic throughout the last year and a half, the industry has once again transformed. Productions halted. Thousands upon thousands of lost jobs. Those still in the workforce have had to adapt to working from home, or on a set full of new precautions. The public, stuck inside, turned to their televisions for comfort and entertainment.

In the wake of the racial injustice and instances of police brutality that consumed much of 2020, many in our industry have taken an active stance against unequal and inaccurate representations onscreen, and the lack of inclusion behind them. The #PayUpHollywood movement emerged to fight for livable wages and better conditions for support staff. Theaters around the world have closed and reopened several times over due to fluctuating mandates, forcing the change of release dates and distribution strategies.

Scarlett Johansson’s recent lawsuit against The Walt Disney Company over alleged breach of contract due to their releasing Black Widow in theaters and Disney+ at the same time is both the result of the changing tides of the industry and an indication of more to come. Now another major guild, IATSE, stands at the brink of a strike to protest harmful working environments. 

All this to say the entertainment industry is volatile. We don’t know what is going to happen next. However, people aren’t going to stop consuming content, so as development executives and producers, we can work with what we do know to make the best decisions about what projects to pursue.

Independent films, studio films: Why the basics should matter to you as a writer 

It’s important to first define the difference between independent and studio films. Many people associate the word "indie" with images of unconventional art-house films, auteur directors, shoestring budgets, and modest festival runs. While that may be the case for some independent projects, an independent film is defined as any film made outside the studio system. It can be any genre, have a recognizable cast, and end up being quite commercial. 

A studio film is any film that is made by a studio such as Disney, WarnerMedia, Universal, Sony, or Paramount. A major difference between the two is that studio films are both funded by the studio and have a guaranteed distribution outlet through the studio, while independent films will have to seek their own funding and distribution. Because independent films are sometimes made before securing financing, they are often made for a loss. Studios have a relatively uniform process by which they develop, greenlight and produce films, while independent films follow less of a methodology, and structure and process is left up to those making the project. 

The job of a development executive is to identify, nurture and elevate material to get it to a place where it can be produced. It involves balancing creative opinions and feedback with strategic thinking. There are many things I must consider when reading a script as a development executive. Most production companies, studios or networks have mandates, meaning specific types of projects they are looking for — this could be a particular genre, tone, or budget range. If the script doesn’t fit within a company’s mandate, I can’t consider it for development, but can treat it as a creative sample to get a sense of the writer’s voice. Here are the three main categories I think about while reading scripts:

  1. Budget: Approximately how much will this script cost? 

If we were to take on this project, are all the costs necessary to tell the story? I ask this question while considering the budget and though I am not a line producer, I can get a sense of a ballpark budget for a project by reading it. If I notice a lot of special effects, many distinct locations or site-specific locations (such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Venetian canals of Italy), big action sequences or a large ensemble, I know those will all raise the cost of production. I also consider if there is any financing already in place, and if there is any talent already attached, knowing that certain "big names" will cost more to include. In thinking about budget, you have to consider options/rights, cast, crew, locations, permits, equipment, insurance, post-production, festival fees, and more. When reading for consideration, I begin to look for ways to potentially make budget changes should I want to take the project on.

  1. Marketability: Who is the audience for this project? Is it topical and relatable? How will this do commercially? Is the cast recognizable? Does anyone involved have a following? Are attachments and portrayals diverse, inclusive and authentic? If it is an independent film, can this presell overseas? Would it be an awards contender? Would it generate buzz?

If I decide to take on a project as an executive, I want to make sure that my company will benefit from that decision. Making movies and television is still a business. I have to understand the marketplace and know if the concept of this project would be a risk, or if it has already been proven a success or failure by previous projects (we call those "comps"). Still, something that may have been popular once may not be now; executives are also aware of the changing attitudes of audiences at large.

We always want material that will be relatable and topical in order to connect with viewers. As a creator, you can’t fall into a trap of aiming to write for the current zeitgeist, because by the time that project gets made — if it gets made — the climate will have changed.

Aside from keeping viewers in mind, I need to assess the commercial value of any talent attached; mainly actors, but also writers and directors with name recognition. I may rely on a foreign sales company for estimates as to how the project might sell abroad, which may differ depending on the star or the subject matter. This isn’t to say the more famous the name attached, the better for the project. Creative fit for a role is still part of marketability. In considering attachments in front of and behind the camera, I want to see diversity of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic class, etc. In the material, I want to ensure those representations are authentic. People want to see themselves reflected onscreen, so the more inclusive a project (this doesn’t mean sprinkling in a stereotypical "gay best friend" or "sassy Black co-worker," which is problematic), the more potential it has to reach and connect with a wide audience, which in turn translates to higher profits.

Beyond a return on monetary investment, I also think about other ways the project could have an impact. If a script or package looks promising in terms of accolades and positive publicity, that boosts the marketability as well.

  1. Story: Is this a story worth sharing? Is it engaging, moving, entertaining? Does the story make sense? Do I care about the characters?

Most importantly, while reading a script I consider the story. A story can have all the components to make it right for the company I’m working for — it fits the mandate, has a well-known cast, a suitable budget — but if at the end of the day I forget about it after I read a couple other scripts from the neverending pile, I’m not going to fight for it. This doesn’t mean the material has to be loud or shocking or visceral to make it stand out. Truly captivating characters, an expertly woven plot, or a wonderfully unique world can hook me. While as development executives we are trained to understand technically good writing, our job also comes down to taste. The same script may spark with one reader and not another — even at the same company — when you account for personal taste. Development executives are always looking for great writers; if your script reads beautifully but is not a fit in terms of what a company or executive is looking for, you may still be brought in for a general meeting to discuss other ways you might collaborate in the future.

It is a small miracle that any film gets made. Taking projects from script to screen takes an astonishing amount of patience and perseverance. So many people have input on the process, and there are countless factors involved. I’ve seen something come together in as quickly as a year, which was for Spike Lee. And I’ve seen other films that are still in the process of being made (by other Oscar® winners, might I add) that are incredible stories, yet have taken two decades and counting. I’ve seen scripts that have sold quickly fall apart and end up in turnaround purgatory, and I’ve seen scripts that took a long time to get going end up successfully getting made and distributed. 

There is no shortage of content being produced and put out into the world right now. And while there’s no sure-footed path to success in producing a film (or any other project), it means there are many routes to that end goal.    

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