A Weary Hello From Development Hell: Welcome to July in L.A.!

Your
diarist is filing this dispatch from a rarefied place in Hollywood—a city of the mind, if you will, known as Development Hell.

It’s
a city that exists somewhere on the imaginary highway between Euphoria (the sale of a script), and Debacle (the Friday morning when the fax arrives with the first box-office figures from the noon shows in Manhattan, and the real recriminations begin).

Part
of the reason I’ve been absent from these pages for so long is that I’ve been stuck in this place for so long. Long enough for friends to get impregnated and give birth; long enough for an entirely new set of celebrities to commit heinous crimes and be acquitted by star-struck Southern California juries; long enough for a majority of the voters in California to conclude that Arnold Schwarzenegger is, in fact, a lot closer to Jesse Ventura than he is to Ronald Reagan, and come down with a serious case of voter’s remorse—a sentiment most recently on display at the July 1 swearing-in ceremony for the new mayor of Los Angeles, where Antonio Villaraigosa was forced to step to the podium and admonish the audience, quelling the jeers and catcalls that greeted the governor’s appearance.

At
the moment, the script I’ve been working on for so long has been submitted to the studio. And now I’m waiting for a decision, or another set of notes, hoping to bypass that other city of the mind out here known as Turnaround: the place where projects and packages and deals—and sometimes whole careers—go to die.

In
the meantime, here’s a little of what’s being discussed in Los Angeles beach houses during this summer of 2005:

—Box-Office
Freakonomics. Even with War of the Worlds and Batman playing in theaters over the July 4 weekend, the movie business didn’t end its 19-week losing streak, with the domestic box office falling short of last year’s ticket sales.
Exactly
a year ago on these pages, I wondered if DVD’s and home theaters would eventually kill the Cineplex. But this past February, I saw something that leads me to believe we’ve reached a tipping point: On the West Coast, Costco started selling home-theater furniture—chairs and sofas, with built-in popcorn and beverage holders. In other words, that market has reached a critical mass—beyond TV’s and surround-sound peripherals—to the point where somebody in North Carolina was now willing to bet an entire furniture factory on it. (In a strange way, this mirrors the American car experience: The Model T begat gas stations, then replacement-part manufacturers, and finally, architects began to incorporate the car garage as a standard feature in houses. The same thing is going on right now, with home theaters.) In Hollywood, the diminishing box office is obviously the source of much Sturm und Drang: John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told Money magazine that the “impending death of the movie theater” is overblown, claiming that “the long-term trend is positive.” And Variety’s Peter Bart has weighed in against doomsayers, pointing out that if DVD’s are included in the economic mix, the movie business is bigger than ever.
Personally,
I tend to agree with Bart—although I’d channel in a little of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard for good measure:
“The pictures are still big. It’s the places we’re seeing them that got smaller.”

—The
New Buzz Words. For years, the battle cry in script-development meetings has been “make it dark, make it edgy.” But no more, as the current studio wisdom has it that “dark and edgy” is what drops off by 15 percent on Saturday night.
(There is, apparently, a limited audience for gratuitous violence.) Thus, the new word of the moment is Origins. Batman was an origins story, the next Bond film is reportedly an origins story; the picture for which I’ve been in development hell is one, too. But even “origins”
is a code word for something else: Setting up the sequel, which itself refers to another buzz phrase still much in vogue: Creating a Studio Franchise.

—Sequels,
remakes and the TV-show-into-film phenomenon: Sorry, but they ain’t going away.
So long as there is one success (e.g., Mission Impossible), all the failures will be blamed on execution, rather than concept. In an era where it’s so difficult—and expensive—to reach a mass audience through advertising, the pre-awareness of the titles is simply too valuable to write off.

Finally,
on a personal note ….

Several
weeks ago, we took our twins to an open house at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

From
the day of their birth, I’ve been worried about bringing up kids in Hollywood.
I know it’s absurd, and ultimately futile, but I’d hoped that when they first thought about stars, Andromeda would come to mind, rather than Lindsay Lohan.

(And
if you really want to understand why Michael Jackson got off, just watch the way schoolteachers react when a movie star is in the room. There’s no part of the jury pool that isn’t affected by their aura.)

To
some extent, I’ve succeeded: At age 4, my daughter is interested in space, but my son is mesmerized by it: John Glenn is his hero. He was bereft—heartbroken—to learn that the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, wouldn’t be coming back to Earth, and wants to rescue them.

And
so, at the end of a long afternoon in Pasadena—walking through the rooms where the Mars rovers were built, watching remote-controlled robots, and listening to scientists talk about crashing space pods into comets—my son and I found ourselves in front of a rocket display, manned by a J.P.L. scientist. The man was about 45, and we fell to talking about the similarities of our careers:
Projects that never get off the ground, stuff that blows up on the launching pad.

“So
Thomas,” he asked finally, “Do you know the names of any of these rockets?”

My
son buried his head in my chest, shyly. “C’mon, Tom,” I whispered, pointing at one of the models. “What’s that?” He bit his lip, and answered, “The Delta II. It took Spirit and Opportunity to Mars.”

Across
the table, the rocket scientist gave me a look—then Thomas a look—as if this was the moment he’d been waiting for all day. “So what’s your favorite rocket?”
he inquired gently.

“The
Saturn V,” Thomas replied.

“Whoa!”
the scientist exclaimed. “That’s like the coolest rocket! That was the coolest rocket, ever!”

Tom’s
face lit up. “I know! It was so cool! It went to the moon!” And the two of them began chatter on about the Apollo, and space, and going to Mars.

In
my brief time as a father, I’ve learned there are moments when you just stand back and watch. In my son’s eyes, I saw awe, and amazement, and connections being made; in the scientist’s, there was sheer joy and delight and innocence—and maybe, just maybe, a glimmer of hope for the future.

Origins,
indeed.