Who gets Lecter’s Lucre?

Plenty of thumbs in cannibal's pie

HOLLYWOOD – When the deal to put together B.O. smash “Hannibal” was being cooked, it had all the ingredients of a curdled mess.

Too many rights partners (Universal, MGM and Dino De Laurentiis, to name a few), too many expectations (an Oscar-winning prequel) and too much of the upside gone before the first frame was shot: More than one-third of the pic’s first-dollar gross went to gross participation deals.

But since its Feb. 9 release, the sequel to “Silence of the Lambs” has earned $250 million worldwide and will likely top out in the neighborhood of $400 million.

U co-prexy Mary Parent, who supervised production for the studio, credits the project as key to her recent promotion. “I wish they could all be like this,” Parent says wistfully.

As Dr. Lecter might say, bite your tongue.

If all movies were like this, they’d see no less than 34% of the first-dollar gross going to a small handful of profit participants — in this case, producer De Laurentiis, Anthony Hopkins, “Hannibal” book author Thomas Harris and director Ridley Scott (the latter three repped by CAA, which was a vital player throughout the deal). However, De Laurentiis still holds as much as 10% of the gross.

A $400 million take for “Hannibal” would leave some $180 million after the exhibitors’ cut, which then puts $60 million in the gross participants’ pockets — all before MGM and U can recoup substantial P&A expenses, much less look for a profit.

In this respect, all Hollywood blockbusters are like this.

And if all sequels were like this, they would face seven years of delay and the abandonment of most of the original hit’s creative principals — not to mention the task of releasing a violent and gory film at the dawn of a new get-tough environment for Hollywood violence.

Still, no one seems deterred by the difficulties, now that “Hannibal’s” a hit. Hopkins is working with the pic’s co-scripter Steve Zaillian on ideas for another sequel that would feature the dietetically challenged Dr. Lecter and his beloved nemesis, FBI agent Clarice Starling.

The score

The mind-bendingly complex chain of events that eventually formed the blockbuster began nearly two decades ago when De Laurentiis bought rights to Harris’ 1981 novel “Red Dragon” out of turnaround from Warner Bros. Pictures.

That book, which became the 1986 Michael Mann film “Manhunter,” starred Brian Cox as Lecter. As part of De Laurentiis’ deal, he had first-negotiation rights to any Harris-penned sequels containing the same characters.

Those rights applied to Harris’ 1989 “Silence of the Lambs.” But De Laurentiis was so dismayed by the poor box office performance of “Manhunter” that he loaned the Harris characters to Orion Pictures on a one-time basis.

It was a move he came to regret. Orion’s 1991 pic became a sensation, topping $250 million B.O. worldwide and becoming only the third film ever to win the top five Oscars: best picture, director (Jonathan Demme), actor (Hopkins), actress (Jodie Foster) and screenplay (Ted Tally).

In a 1992 legal battle, Universal claimed to have an oral contract that linked the studio’s participation in any “Silence” sequel to an agreement to distribute Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness,” which De Laurentiis produced. The suit ended with an out-of-court settlement that gave U first negotiation/last refusal opportunity to bid on domestic distribution rights on the “Silence” sequel.

Smash cut to March 1999, when Harris delivered his long-gestating “Hannibal.” De Laurentiis exercised his first right of negotiation to pounce on the novel for $9 million — the highest figure paid for the screen rights to a book.

De Laurentiis offered to co-finance the picture with U, offering the studio domestic rights in exchange for putting up half the budget. Universal made a counteroffer to fully finance the pic in return for worldwide rights.

De Laurentiis accepted the bid, but now it was the studio’s turn to worry, since the budget was escalating to $80 million.

As U made a deal to back the movie, it received a letter from MGM in April 1999 laying claim to “Hannibal.”

While “Manhunter” gave De Laurentiis rights to the character of Lecter, the logic went, MGM’s 1997 acquisition of the Orion library gave the Lion sequel rights to Starling — who first appeared in “Silence of the Lambs.”

While some inside U debated the validity of MGM’s claim, it made the studio a natural co-financing partner. The deal nearly became embroiled in Chris McGurk’s April 1999 exit as U prexy to become vice chairman and chief operating officer of MGM — and it was agreed that Universal would handle the pic’s domestic distribution, MGM foreign.

But back to the book. Within weeks of the megapurchase, “Silence” helmer Demme passed on the project and Tally followed suit; both cited concerns with “Hannibal’s” violent content.

While in Malta producing “U-571,” De Laurentiis approached Ridley Scott, who was there to shoot “Gladiator.” Scott agreed to helm “Hannibal.” Meanwhile, David Mamet had begun to adapt the script, which was then rewritten by Zaillian.

Finally, six months after the novel’s purchase, “Silence” stars Hopkins and Foster had the adaptation in hand. Hopkins said yes; Foster said no.

The official reason for Foster’s refusal was her desire to direct “Flora Plum.” However, players in the deal say her decision was colored by the script’s grisly nature, and others say the studio became queasy at the idea of paying her $20 million plus 15% of an already overbooked gross. Still others say Foster never even received an offer.

The studio went to Julianne Moore and secured the actress to portray Starling for $3 million and no gross points.

De Laurentiis still had reason to worry. He had a good-faith responsibility to give his long-standing German, Japanese and Italian distributors first dibs on distribution rights, but MGM wasn’t cooperating.

U approached MGM about selling off the three territories — in fact, the studio wanted to sell off even more — but MGM had just exited UIP and now handled foreign distribution through 20th Century Fox Intl. MGM had little interest in kicking off its newly minted relationship by selling off key territories. And now that McGurk was safely ensconced at MGM, relations were chilly between McGurk and his former U colleagues.

Meanwhile, U eyed the MGM-Fox relationship with some trepidation — after all, Fox was essentially acting as a rent-a-system and had none of MGM or U’s vested interest. Besides, U’s own UIP pipeline needed the title overseas — at the time, the studio had been on a virtual rights-selling spree with titles like “American Pie” and “The Skulls.”

Negotiations threatened to break down once more, with U intimating that it would shut down production if MGM didn’t release the territories for sale to further mitigate any risk. MGM responded by saying that if U pulled out, MGM would be happy to fully finance the project.

The problem was resolved last February — nearly a year to the date before the film’s release — by MGM and U agreeing to switch responsibilities for domestic and international distribution to make their various partners happy.De Laurentiis then clinched deals with Gaga in Japan for $14 million, Tobis StudioCanal in Germany for $7 million for theatrical rights only and an all-rights deal for $7.5 million with Italy’s Filmauro, which is headed by Dino’s nephew, Aurelio de Laurentiis. All of the coin went into MGM and U’s shared pot.

By all accounts, “Hannibal” was blissfully uneventful once production began May 8, 2000, in Florence, Italy. Universal remained responsible for overseeing the film’s production, and the pic even came in under its $80 million budget by the time it wrapped in North Carolina Sept. 1.

And since MGM spent nearly all of 2000 reorganizing and ramping up for 2001, “Hannibal” benefited from the undivided attention of the studio’s distribution and marketing departments.

With Universal and MGM likely to have at least a few bucks to split at the end of the day, the studios are now poised to produce another installment in the Lecter-Starling saga. And since Zaillian and Hopkins are working on an original story, they won’t have to worry if Harris faces writer’s block.

A Universal exec says he looks forward to the prospect of another sequel. But, he cautions, “If you had asked me before the movie came out, I might have said, ‘No.’ “

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