New studio shuffles put deals on wheels

As the dust settles on the explosive exec shuffles of 1995, now comes the second act: This time it’s studio-based producers filling out the change-of-address forms. Some are following favorite studio execs across town, others are ankling new studio regimes whose policies make their deals less productive; whatever the reason, producers are packing up scripts – and turning in their keys – like never before.

The moves are significant because producers are rising in the Hollywood pecking order – despite a credits dispute earlier this year that gave writers higher on-screen billing than producers. At a time when box office results are sagging and financial sources dwindling, studios are looking to the producing community as a source of pedigreed properties and co-financing.

But in the past few weeks, the production companies responsible for “First Knight,” “Higher Learning,” “Get Shorty,” “Seven,” “Congo,” “Heat” and “Braveheart” either switched their studio affiliations or started flirting with new corporate sugar daddies.

Some of the shifts reflect the natural to-and-fro as deals reach maturity. But new faces in the senior production ranks at Disney, MCA, Sony and Fox – combined with shifts in corporate strategies at studios like Paramount and Fox – are changing the entire landscape for production companies.

That goes for everyone from studio workhorses like Arnold Kopelson to companies around a movie star (Kevin Costner’s Tig Prods.) or an A-list director (Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule) to the legion of savvy schmoozers on the fringe.

The most pronounced change in a studio’s producer lineup has been at Sony, with Zucker Brothers Productions, John Singleton’s New Deal Prods, and Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films all ankling for MCA/Universal. In their stead, Sony is looking to a platoon of golden parachutists – Peter Guber, Mike Medavoy and Stanley Jaffe – to fill the pipeline.

“There are only so many deals you want to house in terms of overhead,” says Columbia TriStar Motion Pictures chairman Mark Canton. “Sometimes it’s good to make a change. We had so much product from the inventories of the producers who have left that we still have projects in our pipeline with all of them, and we look forward to that. If other companies want to build up their inventories, then that’s fine. Let somebody else pay for it.”

In fact, Sony is paying a lot for Guber’s Mandalay, which has a revolving fund of roughly $275 million earmarked for overhead, executive salaries and development. Like New Regency’s deal at Warner Bros., Mandalay will handle its own foreign distribution through several partners – essentially preselling the studio’s films.

Sony execs suggest that the rise of Mandalay and the departure of several other producers is no coincidence. Mandalay is clearly casting the longest shadow on the Culver City lot – cherry-picking TriStar’s “The Fan” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” and Columbia’s “The Colony” for its own slate.

Meanwhile, several studios have changed ownership or corporate management strategies since longterm deals were signed with producers two, three, or five years ago. Twentieth Century Fox, as a division of multinational News Corp., has put increased emphasis on owning all worldwide rights to its productions; and the studio is even hammering out a deal to own all rights on Cameron’s upcoming “Titanic.”

Previously, Fox picked up domestic on Lightstorm titles like “True Lies,” which was partly financed through Lightstorm’s patchwork deals with foreign distributors. In contrast to Fox, Viacom-owned Paramount is now seeking to sell off as much of the foreign rights on its films as it can. Taking the fiscally prudent lead of brass at the studio, Paramount is following a low-risk, low-yield approach to their slate and is increasingly looking for producers who can bring some major form of outside financing to the mix – such as Michael Douglas and Steve Reuther’s Par-based production company, backed by German investor Bodo Scriba.

And just last week, “Speed” producer Mark Gordon left the Fox lot for Paramount. After partnering with Gary Levinsohn, a native South African based in Los Angeles who specializes in raising international coin for Hollywood movies, his split-rights vision no longer jibed with Fox’s master plan.

Different studio philosophies on foreign will no doubt be a major consideration when Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey’s Icon Prods, decides next year whether to remain based at Warner Bros, or move to either Fox or Paramount. The latter two studios co-financed Gibson’s “Braveheart,” with Fox taking foreign and Paramount handling domestic.

At Paramount, producer Scott Rudin and Sydney Pollack’s Mirage are still the reigning monarchs. At Fox, Chris Columbus’ 1492 is a major force – not only because of the director’s box office power but because of that studio’s hope to build the company into an Amblin.

But several new additions to the Fox lot will change the pecking order there. Art Linson, a refugee producer from Warner Bros., has put a commercial David Mamet thriller into pre-production and has Alfonso Cuaron directing a modern-day retelling of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”

“He is one of the few real producers we have on this lot ” notes a Fox executive. “By ‘real’ I mean someone who can find material, sign an important director and get casting with little help from us.”

But the hierarchy at Fox may change drastically in the next two years. Cameron moves closer into the Fox family next year, and Kopelson begins a first-look deal there in 1997. Those two producers will undoubtedly become the first stop for Fox’s big-budget fare. Other producers may get their feathers ruffled, especially those hoping to purvey action films.

Sometimes production company shifts are simply the end result of executive shakeups. An integral player in Fox’s courtship of Kopelson was the studio’s senior vice president Sanford Panitch, who was Kopelson’s right-hand man before joining Fox earlier this year.

MCA Inc. president Ron Meyer and Disney president Michael Ovitz also have worked with their senior studio executives to woo favorites from their previous lives at Creative Artists Agency.

The Zuckers, Singleton and Jersey Films (“Get Shorty,” “Pulp Fiction”) are all CAA clients – and all headed to MCA Inc. Since Ovitz joined Disney, Sean Connery’s Fountainbridge Films, which was a producer on “Just Cause” and was formerly based at Fox, followed Ovitz there. CAA producer clients Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (“Congo”) are in final negotiations to leave their longtime perch at Paramount for Disney also.

“The reason Ron Meyer and (MCA motion picture group chairman) Casey Silver are picking up the lion’s share of these deals is that Ronnie gives you the feeling that he wants to make a daunting process easier,” notes one producer who just switched to MCA. “Look, I can find material and get a director interested in a project. Where I run into problems sometimes is finding a bankable star. And I think Meyer knows something about talking to stars.”

One upshot to all the production company switcheroos is that several studios are increasingly chasing producers who can package quirky films, a situation exacerbated by a fall in which many of the old formulas failed to work: Joe Eszterhas (“Jade,” “Showgirls”) was eclipsed as scenarioist of the moment by Jane Austen (“Sense and Sensibility” ) and William Shakespeare (“Richard III”).

Even saleable elements like Sylvester Stallone, Demi Moore and Ralph Fiennes failed to break out at the box office, so studios are turning to producers who can deliver diverting fare rather than paint-by-numbers pabulum.

“There are precious few studio executives who are both masters of studio politics and effective with creative people,” says one producer who is currently being romanced by several major studios. “Look at the success of New Line Cinema. A lot of that has to do with (New Line president of production) Mike DeLuca having an appreciation for film and having written films himself.

Most studio executives are like Indians in the old Westerns – except when they put their ear to the ground, the executives hear the train that’s already left the station instead of the one that’s approaching.”

Dan Cox Contributed To This Report.

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