Rupert bags Baz

Luhrmann inks major News Corp. pact

News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s global media conglomerate, used the gala unveiling May 2 of its Fox Studios Australia complex in Sydney to announce a wide-ranging, exclusive multimedia pact with “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet” filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, whose creative reach will now span across film, music, location-based entertainment attractions and theatrical productions.

While the five-year alliance serves as an extension of Luhrmann’s film deal with Fox Filmed Entertainment, under the terms of the new pact struck with Fox’s corporate parent, Luhrmann will write, direct and produce feature films; direct and produce legit productions; and design and produce events and legit shows at Fox Studios Australia’s new production facilities, which will launch a studio walking tour next year.

Going live at Fox

The cornerstone of the new deal is News Corp.’s purchase of the theatrical rights to Luhrmann’s 1992 film debut, “Strictly Ballroom,” which he will develop as a live musical production to premiere in Australia in a planned theater on the Fox Studios lot.

The deal was announced in Los Angeles by Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp. and chairman/CEO of the Fox Group, and by Bill Mechanic, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, who was in Sydney to mark the opening of Fox Studios Australia.

“Baz, who is a remarkably multifaceted creative force, was looking to stay home and become a key central force in Australia,” Chernin told Daily Variety. “We, at the same time, had been going through a creative expansion in Australia, with the studio, shops, tour and others.

“Now he and his company will be creative consultants for us on the overall look and design of the tour, movie theater and other elements that we will open before the Olympics.”

News Corp. is building a theater on the fairgrounds to house the “Ballroom” production, which Luhrmann said might include “creative pieces of theatrics and audience participation.”

Part of the action

Luhrmann said he expects to begin work on the musical in six weeks and then begin designing the “experiential” attractions of the Fox Studios fairgrounds, including the walking tour and audience participation features.

Luhrmann’s company, Bazmark Live — which produced the gala for the opening of the Fox Studios — is in negotiations with avant garde Aussie theater director Barry Kosky to develop concepts for the Fox Studios Australia walking tour.

Luhrmann said it is his and News Corp.’s ultimate goal to debut the musical “Ballroom” in Sydney in time for the Olympics in 2000, and then eventually take it to London’s West End and Broadway.

Chernin said the first element out of this deal will be the “soft opening of the studio tour in 15 or 16 months, then the musical in 18 months to two years.”

During that time, Luhrmann said he will shoot his next film, on which he is collaborating once again with Craig Pearce on the screenplay. Luhrmann and Pearce recently spent time researching and drafting a treatment in Paris. The untitled Fox project, which is a music-laden production, is expected to go before the cameras in a year.

Music is part of deal

The new deal also features a music component, which will encompass the soundtracks to Luhrmann’s films and cast recordings from the legit productions. The albums most likely will be released in Oz as a co-venture between News Corp.’s Festival records label, Bazmark Records and Interscope Records. And Luhrmann has inked a co-venture with Interscope to distribute the recordings in the U.S. under the Bazmark label.

Luhrmann and Fox began their relationship four years ago, when he signed a deal to direct, produce and co-write the box office hit “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet,” which starred the now white-hot Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. In addition to critical plaudits (the film won four BAFTA awards this year, including best director for Luhrmann and best adapted screenplay for Luhrmann and co-writer Pearce), the under-$20 million film went on to earn more than $140 million worldwide.

Six years ago Luhrmann launched “Strictly Ballroom” at Cannes, and the indie feature went on to win eight 1992 Australian Film Institute Awards, including best picture, best director and best screenplay. The $3 million romantic fable set in the colorful, capricious world of ballroom dancing went on to earn nearly $30 million worldwide.

“The general pattern for creative Australians working in the film business is to travel and work around the world,” Luhrmann told Daily Variety. “While after a certain point you are allowed certain creative freedom, we wanted to find a way to make large-scale films for a world stage, but stay connected to who we are, and this happened in conjunction with a large fairground in the middle of Sydney and with a large, Australia-based company.”

Luhrmann credits the relationships he has forged with News Corp.’s Murdoch, Chernin, Mechanic and 20th Century Fox production prexy Tom Rothman and production exec Peter Rice for bringing about the extensive pact with News Corp.

“Look at News overall,” he said. “It’s a great creative playground, but ultimately this deal was formed and based on relationships.”

Robert Newman and Jackie Fuchs of International Creative Management and attorney Barry Hirsch brokered the deal on Luhrmann’s behalf.

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