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Top Secret!

Illustration by Martha Crawford
"TRUE LOVE IS LIKE SEEING GHOSTS," WROTE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD. "EVERYONE TALKS ABOUT IT, BUT FEW OF US have ever seen one." In Hollywood, something similar could be said about secret Internet tracking sites -- Web sites development executives are increasingly using to follow and comment on spec scripts, pitches and books with popcorn potential as they make their merry way through Hollywood.

"People say there are these sites out there," says Mr. Beige, a creative executive at a high-profile production company, "but whenever I ask someone who says they've seen one where to find it, they say, 'I don't know.' I find it hard to believe they exist, that something that's being used at all these different studios and companies could have been kept this secret."

But the sites do exist. One screenwriter -- let's call him Mr. Blue -- first heard about them when a producer told him that his script was getting great notices on the Web. But that was all he found out. When he went home and tried to find a tracking site himself, he came up blank. "What sent a shiver down my spine," he says, "was the thought that you could be killed by one reader at one production company. In the past, the next reader at another company would make a fresh start, but maybe not now."

Another screenwriter -- an articulate fellow we'll call Mr. Red -- found out about the sites when he dropped by the office of a company he was doing a rewrite for and noticed the assistants all staring feverishly into their computer screens. He asked them what they were doing, and was told they were looking at a Web site that tracked spec scripts. When he asked for the URL, though, he was told it was private. Since then, Mr. Red has learned more about the tracking sites, though he hasn't clicked on one himself. He says he isn't too worried about them since most spec scripts are "high-concept drivel" anyway.

"I feel neither oppressed by this nor liberated by this," he says. "I feel kind of bemused by it. If you've ever spoken to anyone who's a member of the tracking cult, it's a world unto itself. It's as complete a world as Myst or Riven or the U.S. Senate . . . I've seen entire production companies driven into a state of fever and paranoia trying to be the first to acquire something they haven't read and would never in a million years produce. The whole tracking cult plays into the sickest kind of mimetic desire -- 'I want it because someone else does.'"

SO HOW DO WEB TRACKING SITES WORK? One insider, pointing the Weekly in the direction of a certain Mr. Green, explains it this way:

"Mr. Green has set up a series of message boards on the net, where development executives can log on using a password and exchange information about upcoming spec scripts. He assigns you to a certain board, depending on what scripts you're interested in. He's not going to put people on the same board who are in competition with each other. This is important, because when you track on the phone you know who you're talking to. On the Warners lot, you don't talk to the guy in the building next to you."

Eventually, the Weekly was able to reach Mr. Green at his home in the Hollywood Hills, where, financed by a "top producer," he is working on the "next generation" of tracking sites. At the moment, he says, there are 17 Internet tracking sites in existence, with 20 to 30 people per tracking group -- about 500 members in all. He runs one of them.

"There are people outside this tracking site who'd love to get on, but have no idea how," he says, adding that "People who have no idea how to get on aren't the people you want anyway. They're on the outside and can't provide any information for you. Right now I'm expanding the Web pages to include tools that anyone working in Hollywood would use daily -- I'm creating an online directory for people working in Hollywood."

Mr. Green was kind enough to give the Weekly a temporary password to his tracking site. Sections on the site included a list of scripts making the rounds that week, an archive of scripts from the previous week, a users list, a help-wanted section and a horoscope.

One script provoked the following comments:

The script is lame

DW will be passing.

Pass for Phoenix . . . I'm so fucking sick of teen movies!!!

Pass

New Regency will be passing

I'm with [name] on that one.

Big pass for us.

Pass for Bel-Air.

 

Another script, a sci-fi story, got rougher treatment: "I read this last night. It should be shot up into space for future generations to find and realize exactly how stupid we were in the late 20th century. In other words, we passed."

As well as comments, there are questions. "Just heard a rumbling of a rumor on this," wrote one exec. "Is this a pitch? Spec? No clue."

About a script with a supermodel in the title, another exec wanted to know, "Who is getting this? Did this go straight into buyers? I hear it is in at Paramount, Disney, MGM, Fox, Fox 2000 and New Line. Confirm or deny anyone?"

"IN THE 11 MONTHS I'VE BEEN TRACKing I've found three or four things that I've liked," says Ms. Pink, a development executive. "The Web sites only work if people aren't stingy about information. [But] if I find out about a script that sounds really interesting, that I'd want to make, I'm not going to tell everyone about it. It's a business like any other, and you want to make sure you're first."

Ms. Pink has doubts about just how useful tracking is. "When you're tracking a spec, first you have to find out about the spec, you have to get the agent to give you the spec, you have to like the spec and take it to a studio. Then you have to get your studio to like the spec, and after that you have to get your studio to like the spec more than any other studio. It's definitely a way to find material, but to devote your entire day to tracking is not the most productive way to find things."

Mr. Gray, an agent with at least one of this year's Academy Award winners on his roster, jokes that he's "tortured a development executive to within an inch of his life," but hasn't been able to get a password yet. "Only the development folks are really aware of [the tracking sites]," he says, in part because people find it hard to believe that executives at different companies would be willing to share so much information. The reality is different. "Executives who change jobs every two years on the carousel of Hollywood are often more loyal to their friends at other companies than they are to their own bosses."

As to whether the sites are good for the movie business, Mr. Gray thinks that depends on what kind of material is being tracked. "If a script is a high-concept comedy that will sell quickly, then the faster you can get the message out, the more chaos and confusion you'll create on its current status minute by minute, and the better for a bidding war. But if it's a piece of material that's intended for a more select audience, that needs a careful read, it can be detrimental because of the herd mentality of young trackers whose taste might supplant your own opinion. The wrong people might read the wrong material, and then broadcast their opinion to the people who should have read it in the first place.

"It's becoming a trader board," he concludes. "A marketplace."

Or perhaps it's simply therapy for development types. "There's a community among the assistants throughout the industry and they stay connected to one another like glue," one insider says. "When you're an assistant at a Hollywood studio, you have to find solace somewhere."


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