The top Hollywood dramas in exec suites, not on screen

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You'll forgive Hollywood if its nerves are a bit jangly these days. Consider:

* The proliferation of screens means moviegoers can always find a seat on opening night. But combined with box-office score cards in every consumer news report and out-of-control production and marketing costs, Hollywood faces a system where a film's success (or failure) is determined by its opening weekend. Or, more accurately, by how it performs Friday night between 8 and 10.

Since this seems a permanent change, studios must rely more than ever on overseas receipts, TV rights and DVD releases to have any chance of recouping costs and even pocketing some change.

* Broadband penetration and advanced digital compression technologies have turned a once seemingly distant possibility-the easy copying and online swapping of feature films-into a looming threat.

The question is whether the film business will respond better and more quickly than the music industry to this issue. Despite the early success of Apple's pay service, the music business continues to wring its hands over the crippling of a business model that allowed it to bundle 10 lousy singles with two or three good ones and overcharge for the package.

* Blockbuster franchise films (the "tent poles" of the opening-weekend model) seem frighteningly flimsy. Sure-fire summer hits, such as "The Hulk," now look like money-losers. "They didn't reject it," one studio head said in discussing a recent flop. "They didn't even show up."

(Names are being avoided in this column for two reasons. The first is to protect the identities of executives who generously shared time and insights during my most recent Los Angeles trip. The second is that the same sentiments were repeated often enough, in more than a dozen meetings, to qualify them as generic Hollywood viewpoints. This is what happens in a one-industry town.)

* Creatively, Hollywood is bankrupt and risk-averse. Just about every film this summer is derivative: a sequel, remake or large-screen version of a `70s TV show or comic book. Even as moviegoers reject such fare, studios show few signs of abandoning it.

* Also adding to Hollywood's agita: Disney and Dreamworks are feuding again, this time over Michael Eisner's seemingly spiteful plan to release Pixar's next offering, "The Incredibles," on the same date (Nov. 5, 2004) staked out by Jeffrey Katzenberg for "Sharkslayer." The latter is a computer-animated underwater mob film that one Hollywood vet calls the most incredible thing he's seen in animation. Both flicks have "Nemo" potential. One of them-OK, Dreamworks-will blink.

* Eisner is also in tense negotiations with Pixar's Steve Jobs, who wants more control over his films. Few expect the partners, who have yet to release a flop, to separate. But Disney will likely wind up with little more than a distribution deal, which Eisner will have to accept.

* Everyone in L.A. is learning a new language, and it's not Spanish. At the intersection of Madison + Vine, few real transactions have taken place because of the culture gap. Entertainment types hungrily eye the wallets of their ad-industry counterparts, but have yet to figure out how to get at them. A hint: Don't view marketers as stupid money to replace foreign financing.

The entertainment industry's future hinges on the collective brainpower of those in charge. Many are savvy and creative, and all are aware of the challenges their town faces. Watching them figure it out over the next few years is sure to be Hollywood's most engaging and entertaining production.

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