If, as Lynda Obst opines, Hollywood is indeed a petri dish, then she is one of its hardiest strains. Eighteen years ago, the former New York Times Magazine editor started as one of Peter Guber’s ”script girls” at Casablanca Record & FilmWorks; now she heads her own production company, with such hits as The Fisher King and Sleepless in Seattle to her name. (Her next film to hit the screen, One Fine Day, with Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney, is scheduled for spring 1997.) In her new book, Hello, He Lied — and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches, Obst weighs in on the rules of the game. ”It began as my attempt to get a grip on the roller-coaster ride of Hollywood,” she says. ”There have been days in which work was the most exhilarating thing in my life, and days in which I felt as if I was crawling around on the ground on all fours.” Amid revealing industry anecdotes, Obst offers would-be producers this invaluable advice.
Red Light/Green Light
The Board Game
Getting a movie made is like playing a board game. Your location on the board, who’s ahead of you and who’s behind you, determines your strategy. Of course, you must know where you’re going. You mustn’t just follow. The purpose is to win — that is, to get a green light to get your movie made. To do this, your goal is to move your piece around the board until you’re home free. The board consists of the following boxes: constant no’s, soft yesses, firm maybes, yes for an answer, yessed to death, and development hell.
The goal is not to win popularity, not to see your name in the trades, not to get the best table at Mortons. These perks are the trading cards in the game. Many people forget this and as a result they miss their turn. A wildly popular producer with 40 dinner engagements and no green light might as well release himself in 1,200 theaters. With no product at all and no script in your hand when opportunity knocks, it doesn’t matter how good your seat is at the table.
Know Thy Buyer
”I wouldn’t go near Warners this week. It’s scary over there.”
— Anonymous Literary Agent
Every studio has a flavor. A personality. A mood. Clearly it derives from the flavor, mood, and personality of the boss, so it changes with the personnel and the season. A mood would be, for example, Sated — as in, we ate too much recently (too many high-calorie spec scripts bought); or Hungry — rapacious needs in the distribution schedule to fill (because this is the agent’s favorite, this mood quickly transforms into its opposite, Sated). The producer’s favorite is Needy, when the studio or its head has been the recipient of bad publicity or bad box office (our version of bad body odor) and has to make a big splash (deals as PR). A common mood, one I see all the time, I call Opaque. As in, ”You guess ’em.” The following list of flavors is arbitrary. At any given time, each description could be true for any given studio:
MGM: Quirky Paramount: High concept Fox: Meat and potatoes Columbia: Closed TriStar: Hungry Universal: Grumpy Disney: Jumpy