Split will lead to project custody battle

The abrupt divorce of Paramount Pictures and Cruise/Wagner Prods. has not only sent shockwaves through the industry but also raised questions about the future of the shingle and its many projects at the studio.

The vociferous exchanges between Par and Cruise’s reps at CAA quieted down Wednesday. The agency had called Sumner Redstone’s remarks “shockingly offensive and graceless,” but industry insiders observed that CAA also represents someone equally if not more important than Cruise — Steven Spielberg. Paramount, of course, now owns Spielberg’s company, DreamWorks.

The Spielberg angle puts even more pressure on Par and CAA to devise a way to settle out the Cruise/Wagner deal.

Also complicating the situation: Cruise’s production partner, Paula Wagner, is married to CAA prexy Rick Nicita.

As for the films, C/W had continued to dig up new projects for Paramount. They were in early talks for a fresh deal to develop a Hurricane Katrina film, made with Scott Gold, the journalist from the L.A. Times’ Houston bureau who covered the disaster.

No deal has been closed for that project, giving Cruise and Wagner the option to take it to their new shingle, for which they have raised a revolving fund of $100 million.

Getting other projects they’ve developed at C/W for Paramount off the lot when they leave next month could be tricky, however.

A rep for the shingle said that conversations about the fate of their Par-based pics have not yet begun. “We have not discussed what will happen with the projects. They all have separate contracts and agreements, and I’m sure they will be honored,” said C/W spokeswoman Julie Polkes of Rogers & Cowan.

Negotiations could get very complicated. Several months ago, Paramount toughened its conditions for projects put into turnaround, insisting that Par not only get fully reimbursed but also obtain co-production rights. The policy has frustrated producers who are trying to recover projects they’d set up under the Sherry Lansing regime.

It was during her tenure that C/W began to flourish on the Par lot. But with new top brass in place under studio chairman Brad Grey and movie stars facing a tougher studio landscape, many speculate that C/W’s exit from Paramount is more about money and less about the behavior of Cruise, as cited by Redstone.

Cruise and Wagner had a notoriously rich deal with Paramount before Grey came in and began cutting costs. He also brought with him another movie star production pact with Brad Pitt and his Plan B — and more recently made a deal with helmer J.J. Abrams. Latter pact could potentially produce the tentpole-sized projects the studio will need in the absence of C/W, which gave Par the successful “Mission: Impossible” franchise.

Producers on the lot have groused about the studio’s reluctance to let projects go into turnaround. And they cite the “brutal” terms Par imposed in allowing Lionsgate to take over the remake of Hong Kong thriller “The Eye” last month.

Paramount let C/W take it elsewhere after Renee Zellweger dropped out and instead committed to another Par thriller, “Case No. 39.” Par waived its reversion rights to reclaim the project, even when Jessica Alba committed to star for directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud.

Cruise/Wagner is scheduled to make the film for Lionsgate next year.

While producers who exit first-look deals often see those projects through to production after they leave, insiders are wondering if the avalanche of other potentially lucrative C/W projects will become the kids in an ugly custody battle.

Outside of Scott Rudin — who just completed his move to the Walt Disney Co. — C/W was for years the most prolific buyer of books and scripts on the Paramount lot.

There is a stockpile of projects, many acquired because of their potential to become starring vehicles for Cruise.

Among the most promising:

  • “One Shot,” a bestselling mystery by Lee Child about a Dirty Harry-like ex-military homicide investigator that was bought last year. It is the latest title in a long-running series that could hatch a franchise.

  • “The Few,” a drama about American fighter pilots who fought for the British in WWII. John Logan wrote the script, and Cruise might reteam with his “Collateral” director Michael Mann.

  • “The War Magician,” a drama Cruise developed with director Peter Weir, with Cruise keen to play British magician Jasper Maskelyne. He used illusions and sleight-of-hand to confound the Germans and protect British troops in North Africa. Peter Buchman wrote the script and Ari Rubin is rewriting.

  • “The Fall of the Warrior King,” an Iraqi War drama based on a New York Times Magazine article about Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, an Army commander in Baghdad who resigned following a scandal in which men under his command caused the drowning of an Iraqi civilian. Stephen Belber (“The Power of Duff”) is writing.

  • “The Devil’s Banker,” the Christopher Reich thriller novel that pairs a female British spy and a U.S. agent and forensic accountant in a cat-and-mouse game to stop a terrorist attack by tracking the mastermind moving vast sums of money from banks in various countries. C/W also holds the option to Reich novel “The Patriots Club,” about a young banker who’s framed for murder by a secret society that has manipulated world events for centuries.

  • A love story vehicle for Cruise that is being written by Marc Klein, who scripted the upcoming Ridley Scott-directed Russell Crowe starrer “A Good Year.”

  • “Carter Beats the Devil,” the Glen David Gold novel that is being adapted by “Little Miss Sunshine” scribe Michael Arndt as another vehicle for Cruise to play a magician.

C/W has an inventory of projects that were originally bought for Cruise but atrophied. There are also numerous titles that will not star Cruise. It would not be surprising if Paramount was less territorial over those given its track record with C/W projects that Cruise didn’t topline.

While “Ask the Dust,” “Elizabethtown” and “Suspect Zero” were Par misfires, C/W produced better-received titles “The Others” and “Shattered Glass.”

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