D -Girls : The Women Behind the Scripts

Depending on whether or not you liked high school, breakfast at Hugo's in West Hollywood on a weekday morning feels like old home week or . . . your worst nightmare.

You sense a Hollywood tribal rite in progress. There's a perceptible lull in the racket as eyes shift to you coming through the door. The tables are filled with the up-and-coming, the flavors-of-the-week, sipping fresh O.J. ($2.50) or "coffee of the day" ($1.50 a cup). Sixty to a sitting, the crowd is young, casually hip. They dress strikingly alike, with no bright colors to disrupt the wash of gray, white and black.

You get the unmistakable feeling that behind the glancing eyes is the nagging question: "Should I know who this is?"

Like the garlicky aroma of the $4.95 house specialty, Pasta Mama (Tagliallini and eggs--yes, people do eat it for breakfast), snatches of conversation waft by: "Not enough real jeopardy" . . . "He's always been nice to me, but . . . " . . . "In turnaround" . . . "I'm really passionate about this project" . . . "Great character arcs" . . . "Between you and me. . . . "

Throughout Hugo's (and the rites also are held at other favorite breakfast venues like Il Fornaio in Bev Hills, the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood and the Hideaway at the Beverly Wilshire), there is a pervading sense of anxious energy, as if every foot is tapping restlessly.

Hollywood's subcultures are represented here--agents, studio executives, producers--but most of all, there are the D-girls.

"D-girl" is the movie industry sobriquet for a woman who works in the murky world of "development." Men dominate most of the power jobs in the industry--directing, producing, running studios--but women reign supreme in the Big D, development.

There are probably about 100 D-girls in Hollywood. Perhaps a fourth are really young men, but women are so prevalent in development that even the men often are referred to as "D-girls"--and even appear that way on many agency lists.

(We aren't counting those women who work in development for studios. They're a subculture unto themselves, with their own rules, dress codes, language and power struggles.)

The standard line is that D-girls "can't say yes, but won't say no." Power in Hollywood is the ability to say "yes." While unable to green-light projects, D-girls are reluctant to reject them. No one wants to be remembered as the person who turned down the next "Platoon" or "Terminator."

The term D-girl has evolved into common usage in recent years and represents at once nothing more than a joking reference to their lack of power in a power-mad world and a telling reminder of the sexism that pervades the movie business.

(For the real female power pack, see the article on Page 20 on the women who run the production companies for major female stars.)

D-girls work for producers, directors and stars. They ferret out material that the boss can make into movies. They read scripts, take "pitch" meetings (where writers outline their ideas), solicit material from agents and read more scripts.

A D-girl puts together "script notes" (comments about the script and suggestions for its improvement) and acts as interpreter for the boss' ideas.

She gears her likes and dislikes to her employer's taste. Like everybody in Hollywood, she is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of "heat." That is, she might spend six months looking for a small family drama for her boss to direct . . . then "Lethal Weapon" opens big over the weekend and come Monday, she's desperately seeking buddy-comedy-action scripts.

In short, D-girls are the gate-keepers of Hollywood. Few producers or directors will deign to look at material that hasn't first been approved by their D-girls.

The D-girls come with various backgrounds but probably were born somewhere other than Los Angeles. They were drawn here by vague notions of wanting to work in movies--but they're invariably energetic, committed, ambitious.

Some examples:

Paige Simpson, director of development for producer Andy Karsch (currently developing "Prince of Tides" from the Pat Conroy novel, plus others) grew up in Chicago. After getting her master's degree in arts administration from Indiana University, she knew she wanted to be in the film business, and "decided to move where the movie business really is."

Simpson, who lives with her boyfriend (a TV executive) in Westwood, has been, in the industry vernacular, "courting" a special writer recently. After work on a recent day, she flew to San Francisco (reading en route the writer's latest essay in Harper's magazine) to take him to dinner. They spent the next day going over his notes and research before she hopped on a plane back home. She hopes the extra effort will land her a development deal.

She was at a Bennington College writer's conference in Vermont this summer to meet young fiction writers and established novelists. "Out of that, I think there are a couple of novelists I'm going to pursue to see if they have a film in them."

She also has a line on an insurance salesman in LaPorte, Ind., working on his first script, "because he has some wonderful small-town characters that we love," and sends him books and scripts for guidance.

Helen Bartlett was a free-lance journalist when she followed her boyfriend (now her husband) from New York to Hollywood. A friend, who was vacating his job as development exec for actor/producer/director Tony Bill ("My Bodyguard") to associate produce Bill's up-coming "Five Corners," introduced her to Bill. She got the job.

Once a contributing editor with Paris Review, she searches out East Coast writers who might be also be doing screenplays. "I read all the quarterlies," she says. "I also talk to journalists, and, of course, all the agents. I also keep playwrights in mind."

Stacks of scripts, literary quarterlies and book galleys have sprung up all over her Westwood apartment. She's been too busy helping select next year's speakers for the 72 Market Street Lecture Series--which started with a Paris Review Reading by E. L. Doctorow that she organized--to keep up her quota of weekly reading.

Melissa Bachrach, v.p. for creative affairs for director Joe Dante, ("Gremlins," "Innerspace") grew up in Springfield, N.J., and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. Knowing only that she "wanted to be in the movie business," she moved to L.A. in 1974.

In 1985, she came across a sample script circulating that "no one would make." It was written by A. Scott Frank. They became friends. When she moved to Dante's Renfield Productions, she showed "Little Man Tate" to her bosses. The script about an 8-year-old genius "trying to fit in," was put into development at Warner Bros.

It's been about three months since she and her husband bought their new home, but she's "barely" had time to work on it. Something always seems to get in the way.

The other day "Little Man Tate," was turned down by Warners. That set off a flurry of activity, culminating with the project being picked up by Fox, that kept her, once more, from tackling the kitchen remodel.

How could you spot a D-girl at Hugo's? She's usually under 35, attractive, invariably white. She doesn't dress for success; she doesn't want to look too businesslike; but neither can she get away with the eccentricity that, say, a screenwriter is permitted.

If her breakfast companion is an agent, she'll lean forward over her blueberry bran muffin, gesturing energetically as she strives to convince him/her to send his/her hottest writer's next spec script. If she's breakfasting with a writer, she will lean forward, this time over her fruit salad with yogurt, listening passionately to a sad case of writer's block.

Most often she started as a secretary or a script reader. She studied the boss' phone sheets to learn who's who in Hollywood--the player's roster of producers, agents and executives. She developed an encyclopedic knowledge of writers and scripts.

D-girls earn between $30,000 and $75,000 a year. Those on the higher side often have expense accounts that, in a town where there's no such thing as pleasure without business, can add up to a hefty sum.

But since the really Big Bucks lie in studio jobs or producing, D-girls are always looking ahead. Their heroines are the women who have gone before them and made it: Dawn Steel, Paramount president of production; Sherry Lansing, Fox production president-now-turned-producer ("Racing With the Moon," the upcoming "Fatal Attraction"), and Lucy Fisher, senior vice president at Warner Bros.

Like everybody in Hollywood, the D-girl waits for the Big Score--an unattached (no producer involved), hot (the best ever!), spec (written for free) script.

If her boss loves it and it's produced, it can constitute her ticket out of the black hole of development--onto the screen with an associate producer credit or into a studio executive suite.

To find those rare available scripts, a D-girl has to know who is writing what, when it will be finished--and how she can get her hands on it first.

Or the D-girl can develop a good idea into a good script. Amy Pascal made her reputation when word circulated that "Earth Girls Are Easy," which she was developing, was a "hot script." It eventually became a Jeff Goldblum-Geena Davis film that just wrapped for De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Pascal now is a production v.p. at Fox.

A D-girl will pursue a writer of promise and the well-crafted script with characters and storyline special enough to set it apart. Some recent examples:

Kathryn McArdle of the Koch Co., loved the writing in "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." When she tracked down writer Phil Hartman, she discovered he didn't even have an agent. He pitched her an idea that she calls a "weird, quirky, hysterical family comedy." She took it to her boss at the time, producer Victor Drai; it's now in development at MGM--called "Mr. Fix-It." She also got Hartman an agent at William Morris.

Fox wanted producer Michael Shamberg ("The Big Chill") to develop a studio-generated idea called "Admissions." Recalls Elizabeth Cantillon, his v.p. for development and production, "We had a hard time finding the right writer. Then I saw a sample script by Terrel Seltzer called 'Alien Times' (now in development with Sanford-Pillsbury Productions, which made "River's Edge"). One scene was the most bright, efficient writing I had read. We got her in right away and convinced her to do this movie."

Shamberg's Ocean Pictures is looking for a director, with hopes of shooting this fall.

Sharon Morrill, who works at De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, met Jeff Rothberg at the proverbial Hollywood party. He pitched her a story about a young stockbroker, needed as a court witness, who goes back to high school to hide from the Mob. "He sent it to me the next day and I gave it to the president of production (then Raffaella De Laurentiis) and she bought it." Co-written with Joe Menosky, with Rothberg producing, "Hiding Out" wrapped in May with Jon Cryer in the lead role.

More of a D-girl's time is often spent developing relationships rather than scripts.

They are often out on the town for every meal, getting acquainted with agents, writers, other D-girls. "Every one of your meals is with a new stranger," says Jennifer Evans, director of development for Shelley Long.

Since a D-girl can work every day in the office and every night on the meal and party circuit, the line between the personal and the professional is often indiscernible. "There's no way to keep them from overlapping," says Marjorie Lewis, director of development for the Geffen Co. "Its incredibly social. Everybody knows everybody else."

"It's the ladies club," says Liz Glotzer, director of development at the Samuel Goldwyn Co. "Everyone you've talked to, I know. And they all know me."

"Its such a hermetic community," says Eli Johnson, who heads development for manager Keith Addis. "The only people I know in L.A. are in the motion picture business." At a recent D-girl wedding, four out of six bridesmaids were D-girls. The fifth was an agent and the odd-girl-out was the bride's sister from out of town.

Though the merry-go-round of social activity may sound like so much good fun, for D-girls it is simply good business.

"I try to know the 'me's' at other companies," says Glotzer, "because if I have a friend at a competing company and they read a script and its not right for them, but they think its great, they call me up and say, 'There's this great script floating around.' That's how you find the best material--through the grapevine."

"It's power trading," says McArdle, "If I call you up on the phone and I give you X piece of information, then you have to give me something that's equally important or better."

Since the D-girl's main functions are to discover writers and material, her stock in trade is knowing which writers can punch up dialogue, which can do broad comedy, which have great unproduced thrillers. That is, when D-girls aren't out socializing, they're reading.

"My life is reading," says Bartlett. "You're in bed at night, you mark the page, put the script down and the first thing you do when you wake up is open that script."

In the intangible world of development, reading is one of the few measurable quotients. "There's a numbers war about that," says Lewis. "I read a lot of screenplays, never less than 10 on a weekend."

"If I don't read 10 scripts on a weekend," says Morrill, "I feel like I haven't done anything."

The result of all this weekend reading is that come Monday morning, everyone has information to trade. And with her first cup of decaf in one hand and the phone in the other, every D-girl in Hollywood participates in yet another tribal rite--the Jeffrey Katzenberg Monday Morning Calls.

Legend has it that while still a lowly development executive, Katzenberg, now chairman of Disney Studios, created the widely practiced ritual of calling agents and development executives first thing Monday morning to ask the immortal question, "What did you read over the weekend that you liked?"

That question--along with its first cousin, "What writers have you read that you like?"--is on every D-girl's lips every Monday morning. Since the quality of her responses is only as good as her sources, this is where the cultivation of relationships pays off.

D-girl friendships are often a source of emotional and professional support, but . . . "You can share information and be a great friend," says one D-girl, "but with all of us there is a cutoff point where we go, 'It's her or me.' "

The fierce competition often extends from the professional to the personal. "These women hunt down men the same way they hunt down projects," says one male development executive. "And if they happen to be one in the same, its the jackpot!"

Indeed, most D-girls date within the industry. "I think it's really dangerous professionally to do that," says McArdle, "but its very hard to prevent yourself. We don't meet anybody else. We don't hang out at TGIFridays in the Marina. It's not our life style. Our life style revolves around breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks with the same core group of people."

D-girls interested in meeting men can resort to unusual tactics. "When I was single," one D-girl remembers, "I'd read a script and ask the agent, 'Well, is he (the writer) cute? Is he single? Is he straight?"

And agents were happy to use personal leverage for business purposes. She remembers telling an agent that she didn't like a script and he responded, "Well (the writer) is really cute. Are you sure you don't want to meet him?"

There are numerous informal, development support groups that meet around town. Morrill, Glotzer and Amy Grauman, v.p. development for producer John Davis, participate in the same monthly, all-women meetings, a grab-bag of business and personal chit-chat. In contrast with other groups to which "you have to come with (business) ammo," Grauman says, their meetings are "social and emotional support--and an information source."

A script called "Beetle Juice" was discovered through just such a meeting. Former development executive Larry Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Michael McDowell, their first, had been conducting the informal monthly meeting for two years when he gave group member Marjorie Lewis an early look in February, 1985, asking for her opinion.

Remembers Lewis: "I read it on a Friday, recommended it on Monday to Eric Eisner (Geffen Co. president) and we bought it that week." Starring Michael Keaton and Geena Davis, it's been shot by director Tim Burton and awaits release through Warner Bros.

The bonds between the women are at once enforced and strained by a natural tendency for people in the business to associate with their own strata. "Generally," says Johnson, "a group of people who start out in roughly the same time, place and position, barring an uncle who runs a studio, tend to rise at approximately the same rate."

And when one person's fortunes rise more quickly than the others, so do tensions. "If suddenly they don't take the phone calls," Johnson continues, "and suddenly they're not interested in socializing or sharing the information, a bitterness develops in the peer group. And they don't forget."

And the one thing you don't want to do in Hollywood is burn any bridges. "You have to be very careful in this business," says Simpson, "because someone who is a nobody today is a somebody tomorrow."

Are the D-girls insecure? Most admitted they are--but the admission invariably was followed by a panicked "but don't print that!"

Insecurity is rarely mentioned. "The pressure isn't talked about at all amongst development people," says Bartlett. Why not? "Maybe its that competitive edge. There is this fear of showing vulnerability."

"I'm not made to feel that if Paramount gets something before me, I'm going to be fired," says Bales, "(but) a lot of people are." Notes Lewis, "I beat myself to a pulp sometimes, when I miss out on something."

Bartlett says that when development executives are "on the phone talking about how good a script is, whoever gets (the script) thinks they must have something good. We're all sort of assuring each other."

That is, if a script is hot, it must be good, right?

Wrong. Indeed, looking at the development process suggests clues on why so many mediocre movies get made. The goal of so much reading is to find the best material. But "there's a reading burnout that takes place," says Johnson. "When I start getting up around the ninth or 10th screenplay on a weekend, it starts to blur together."

Since it takes so much time and energy to simply cover the Hollywood beat, most D-girls don't look elsewhere for material. "It's very easy," says Bartlett, "to stay in the loop of agents and talking to each other and talking about those hot scripts. But you're all looking at the same stuff." Small wonder that so many Hollywood movies seem so curiously alike.

Most D-girls perceive their time in this curious underworld of development as dues paying. However, given today's Hollywood, their goals for bigger and better jobs may be a wilder fantasy than they can put on the screen.

Hollywood is notoriously tough on women. There are few female producers in Hollywood, and though the ranks of women studio executives have grown, women are still generally confined to middle-level jobs. Says Cantillon, "It's like this raft of women holding up the movie business, but not guiding the ship."

"You're the woman behind the man," says Bachrach. "You are deferring to someone else's opinion."

"You can't really make anything happen," says McArdle.

And, claims one ex-D-girl, "Many producers, especially old line male producers, see having a youngish, attractive woman in the office as sort of a status symbol. It's like having a maid."

Men may be more apt to become agents or producers; women become story editors. As one D-girl put it, "At my company, the men go off and make movies while the women stay home and tend the scripts."

The majority of D-girls will never make it to the top. Many will stay where they are because they know a good thing when they see it. Says one development executive, "You can be making $50,000, $60,000 a year, you're not working very hard, maybe you're married. You go out a lot, you chat with your friends. It's not a bad life."

Many women feel that only the most single-minded among them will really succeed. Those that want a family and a life outside the business feel the pressures particularly strongly. "It's what you read about in Cosmo," says Cantillon, who's married and recently had a baby. "Can you have it all? And basically, something is going to be sacrificed."

There's no glory in remaining a D-girl; veteran D-girls, those who have been at it for more than five years, are regarded with some disdain.

"If I'm still doing this in five years," said one, "then I'm really not any good."

Said another: "I don't know anyone who wants to be a career D-girl. I don't know what happens to them--they just disappear."

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