Studio makes $16 mil deal with Singleton

PARK CITY — The reinvigorated Paramount under Viacom co-prexy/co-chief operating officer Tom Freston and newly installed Paramount Motion Picture Group chairman-CEO Brad Grey made its presence known in no uncertain terms at Sundance this weekend, ponying up $16 million in a multipic deal to acquire John Singleton’s urban pic “Hustle & Flow.”

Deal included a $9 million acquisition price for the pic, plus a commitment from Par to finance two more unspecified movies budgeted at around $3.5 million each that Singleton will produce.

“Hustle” follows a Memphis pimp facing a midlife crisis who’s determined to become a rapper. Tyro helmer Craig Brewer wrote and directed “Hustle,” which stars Terrence Howard, Taryn Manning, Anthony Anderson, DJ Qualls and rapper Ludacris.

Drama of the deal unfurled Saturday night at Sundance, but it was going on well before that in Los Angeles.

Grey talked to Singleton about the deal all week, as the studio also is prepping the helmer’s next pic, “Four Brothers.” While “Hustle” unspooled Saturday night at the Racquet Club in Park City, Grey hosted a simultaneous screening at his home attended by Paramount Pictures chief operating officer and vice chairman Rob Friedman, vice chairman Donald De Line and worldwide marketing prexy Gerry Rich.

Freston winged into Park City Saturday night to see the pic with MTV Films exec VP David Gale and Paramount Classics co-prexys Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein, who led negotiations for the company with Singleton’s reps at UTA and attorneys Stephen Barnes and Larry Kopeikin.

Talks, which were engineered by UTA, went into the wee hours of Sunday morning, with New Line Cinema aggressively in the mix of bidders that also included Focus Features and Miramax.

New Line ponied up a significant offer on “Hustle,” but its package on Singleton’s subsequent two pics didn’t match Par’s. New Line ultimately bowed out before the deal closed at 5 a.m. with MTV and Paramount in the lobby of the Marriott Summit Watch at the bottom of Main Street.

New Par paradigm

MTV and Par are expected to commit about $15 million for P&A to release the pic this summer and will leverage the marketing and distribution muscle of various Viacom labels to position it.

Last year, Fox Searchlight bought “Napoleon Dynamite” and partnered with MTV on domestic marketing while Paramount took foreign rights.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s the beginning of the strategy that has been outlined by Tom Freston and Brad Grey about the kinds of movies we want to be involved with in the future,” Friedman said. “It’s a very effective and efficient way to get highly commercial movies that are genre-specific and youth-oriented, which we can maximize in terms of marketing and distribution across our divisions and releasing labels.”

Singleton agreed that MTV’s involvement upped the ante. “There are many different ways they can promote the film because of MTV and BET,” he said. “They have all these output deals and they have CBS.”

There was much scuttlebutt in Park City about whether Par had seen the movie before its unspooling at fest. Reps for MTV and Paramount denied it, but rival distribs were not so sure.

Many passed on the pic

Ironically, all the interested parties could have had their hands on “Hustle” before it went into a bidding war.

“Stephanie Allain came to us with this project a long time ago,” Gale said.

Though several studios passed on “Hustle,” Singleton and his producing partner Allain believe the pic has the potential to tap into a cultural zeitgeist that is driving the music business right now.

The duo pulled out their wallets to back the roughly $3 million pic for tyro helmer Craig Brewer.

“We started (‘Hustle’) in 2001, taking it to studios, and we couldn’t get it done,” Allain said. “Because it’s by an independent filmmaker — not because it isn’t commercial, which it is.”

Hip and hip-hop

“Every studio and every distributor loved it,” Singleton said. “But they couldn’t pull the trigger. We got frustrated and said, ‘We’re just going to make it.’ This is something Hollywood hasn’t been able to tap into. You see what’s happening in the culture, not only with hip-hop, but with country (music).”

Allain and Singleton added that the filmmakers are supplying the hip, edgy product that Hollywood wants but has been too timid to greenlight.

“I always thought I was going to be an independent filmmaker. Now it’s 15 years later, but we still have to have that type of vision of what’s hip and what Hollywood isn’t doing,” said Singleton. With “Hustle,” we just want to “prove that we can go do this outside the system and do it better.”

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