In a franchise world, top-tier helmers no longer get ultimate approval on their films

Peter Jackson has it.

Sam Raimi never had it.

Kevin Costner had it and lost it.

It’s is the last sought-after perk for a studio director: final cut.

For decades, studios have acquiesced to agent demands by allowing high-profile directors the creative freedom to deliver their films as they see fit. But in recent years, studio corporate overlords have become less amenable to risk of any kind and the list of final-cut directors has received a snip of its own.

“It’s being asked for less frequently,” says one studio chief. “In the current climate, movie stars and star directors are taking a bit of a backseat. Back in the day, agents would fight to get a first-time director who had done nothing an ‘A Film By’ credit. Remember that? Now, as the financials of the deals have become so much more challenging, creative rights are an afterthought.”

Final cut was once handed out so freely that even thesps occasionally got in the game. As an actor, Costner had final cut on the 1999 baseball pic “For Love of the Game.” Costner, hot off his Oscar-winning helming effort “Dances With Wolves,” squared off with helmer Raimi over the finished product. Universal backed Raimi, even though Costner had the contractual upper hand.

Studios vary on final-cut policies. Ironically, Sony — long considered the most talent-friendly studio — rarely grants the privilege. In fact, Raimi never enjoyed final cut on any of his three “Spider Man” films for the studio. “Sony would never give away final cut on that franchise,” says a source close to the property.

Recently, Raimi and Sony couldn’t see eye to eye on the direction of a fourth “Spider” installment, and the studio pulled the plug, opting instead to reboot the franchise with “500 Days of Summer” helmer Marc Webb. Had Raimi been a final-cut director, Sony might have found itself in a futile post-production battle with the helmer over its crown jewel and priciest franchise.

By contrast, Warner Bros. gave the Wachowski brothers final cut for its “Speed Racer” redo. The siblings brought the kid pic in at 2 hours and 15 minutes (studio execs would have preferred 90 minutes). What had been hyped as the next breakout franchise became a box office disaster, earning $44 million domestically.

Similarly, 20th Century Fox got burned on Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia.” Luhrmann, who has long been lauded by critics, brought the film in long and with a dour ending — much to Fox toppers’ chagrin. Still, there was little Fox could do except watch the underwhelming box office returns (less than $50 million domestically).

“When you get into business with someone like Baz Luhrmann or Peter Jackson, what you’re really buying is their worldwide artistic reputation,” says a studio chief. “Even if you can find a way that they are in breach (of their contractual delivery terms), you are more than hesitant to take advantage. Putting aside what the contract says, you’re not going to take on Baz and take on that PR nightmare.”

Instead, studios are becoming increasingly stingy with the final-cut perk, especially with expensive brand-based properties like “Spider-Man” and “Watchmen.”

Stephen Sommers negotiated for final cut on “G.I. Joe,” a decision that won’t likely be repeated by Paramount for the planned sequel.

“Studios get terrified that they have no leverage when they give final cut,” says a top dealmaker who reps a number of such directors. “With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, they don’t want to give up that control.”

Even those who do get final cut — the list includes Jackson, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, Michael Bay, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard — must bend to the will of the studios on certain aspects. There are limitations, including pre-negotiated running time, rating and budget (with a cushion).

“Every director has time constraints,” the dealmaker adds. “Even James Cameron can’t bring ‘Avatar’ in at four hours.”

And though Par publicly backed final-cut director Fincher on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Zodiac,” privately top executives were pulling their hair out over Fincher’s unyielding stance on key creative issues.

Sony recently ventured into the final-cut business for the first time when it hired Fincher to direct “The Social Network.” However, the move was hardly a gamble on the order of the $150 million “Benjamin Button.” “Social Network” is being made for $40 million. “Studios are negotiating tough on director salaries,” the studio chief adds. “Still, they aren’t giving away final cut as a consolation. It’s too big a bone to throw.”

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