Woody exits TriStar for Sweetland deal

Woody Allen is parting company with TriStar Pictures and will instead make his next three films with private funding, Daily Variety has learned.

Though Allen exercised creative control over his films released through TriStar, the filmmaker’s new arrangement — with an entity called Sweetland Films — contains financial terms more favorable to Allen, according to sources. This includes higher budgets. The new deal starts with the film Allen is prepping for a September shoot that was supposed to be funded by TriStar.

Sweetland Films, which was founded by former “Saturday Night Live” producer Jean Doumanian, will shortly try to make a distribution deal for future Allen projects, with TriStar among the candidates. Doumanian has been a close friend of the director since he was on the Chicago standup circuit 30 years ago.

In view of Allen’s recent legal problems, there have been long-standing rumors of a breakup with TriStar since the disappointing gross of Allen’s critically acclaimed “Husbands and Wives.” But sources emphasize that TriStar still had one project to go under its deal. Rather, Allen initiated the change. Reps would only say the TriStar deal was a multipic pact.

Allen got the OK to make the Sweetland deal from TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy, a close friend of Allen who worked with the director at Orion and TriStar. Medavoy has always given the director creative control. Now he has agreed to let Allen control his destiny as well.

“It is with a mixture of pleasure and regret that we have agreed to accommodate Woody’s desire to make his next group of pictures with Sweetland,” Medavoy said. “We are pleased to have been associated with such a unique and versatile creative force, and we believe that the release of ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ will serve as a successful conclusion to our formal relationship.”

Doumanian, who formed Sweetland Films for the production of the 1991 Oscar-nominated Sven Nykvist-directed film “The Ox,” has put together a multimillion-dollar line of funding from European and U.S. sources to fund feature, TV and theatrical projects.

Allen enjoyed creative control at TriStar, but was subject to gentle budgetary restrictions. Sources said the budgets on his films for Sweetland will be as much as 25% higher over the term of the deal. His fees will also increase. A rep declined comment on the specifics of the deal.

Sweetland’s first Allen effort will be a period comedy set in the 1920s, starring John Cusack, Dianne Wiest and Chazz Palminteri. Jennifer Tilly is also rumored to be joining the cast. Allen will not act in the film, which is currently untitled. The director is reportedly also in discussions to do a TV project with Doumanian.

Sweetland will truly be a family affair for Allen, since his sister, Letty Aronson, has been a vice president of the company for the past nine months. Doumanian is best known for having replaced Lorne Michaels on “Saturday Night Live” in 1980. Michaels eventually returned to the show, which he still runs. Doumanian has yet to make any distribution arrangements on Allen’s film, and reps for both parties indicate that TriStar could be a contender.

For its part, TriStar supported Allen through his legal skirmishes. Though critically well received, the “Husbands and Wives” storyline bore some uncomfortably similar characteristics to the Allen-Farrow breakup. TriStar bumped up its release date as the story hit the presses, but the film grossed only $ 10.5 million domestically. It redeemed itself overseas, with a worldwide gross of around $ 28 million. The film cost about $ 15 million to make.

Allen’s relationship with Medavoy goes all the way back to 1983, when Orion financed “Zelig.” Allen made nine films with Medavoy, including “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” then rejoined Medavoy at TriStar in September 1991, when Orion was unable to finance “Husbands and Wives.”

The studio seems bullish on Allen’s upcoming “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” which has been well received in early screenings. A broad comedy, the film hearkens back to Allen’s earlier lighthearted works, which were very profitable.

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