Appeal to trade funding for first dibs on projects is still strong
First-look production deals are holding steady: There are now 155 at the studios, a gain of a dozen from a year ago. If you’re an optimist, that’s great news. But if you’re a pessimist, the tally is only about half of the 292 deals in place for Variety’s Facts on Pacts story in 2000. Despite the focus on cost-cutting, studios continue to demonstrate that there’s a tangible benefit in providing a producer with an office and funding in exchange for having first dibs on development projects. But a decade ago DreamWorks, Miramax and New Line were in their heyday and tallied 79 deals among them. Today Miramax has no deals; DreamWorks, which had only two deals a year ago, has five now; and New Line has grown from three to four by signing Offspring Entertainment, the Adam Shankman-Jennifer Gibgot shingle that had been at Disney. The Mouse House, which is relying on Marvel and Pixar to supply tentpoles, saw the biggest decline, with five deals departing. But Universal’s management has shown a solid belief in deals, with a net gain of five. Big names that have signed new deals include Justin Lin, Kevin Spacey, Mark Gordon and Russell Brand. Deals that have expired include Walt Becker, John Wells and Bob Shaye. And deals that have shifted include Scott Rudin, Kennedy/Marshall and Jason Blum. Gordon, who recently signed a deal at Disney, tells Variety that studios realize first-look deals make sense. “It’s clear that there will continue to be a need for content — and most of that is started by producers,” says Gordon, who’s also co-president of the Producers Guild of America. “None of us are daunted by that challenge, by the way. The fact that (the number of deals hasn’t really changed) is a testament that studios recognize that most of their material comes from producers.” Warner Bros. continues to have the most deals with 31 (excluding the four New Line deals), followed by Universal with 29, if the three Focus deals are excluded. Sony has 26, followed by Fox with 23, Disney with 18 and Paramount with 12. And while some producers privately lament how tight-fisted the Big Six can be on specific deal points, quibbling over the details of development fees, they admit that they’d rather have a deal than not have a deal. “It’s always nice to have your overhead taken care of,” Gordon notes. “You do have more flexibility if you don’t have one, but most producers would rather have one.” Many of the pacts cover little more than an office and the salaries for an assistant or two, offering a sharp contrast with major long-term suppliers such as Jerry Bruckheimer at Disney, Imagine at Universal and Lorenzo di Bonaventura at Paramount. Blum, who signed his fourth term deal in July with U — following deals with Miramax, HBO and Paramount — tells Variety that he’s particularly enthused over being part of the new crop of producers operating at a studio that’s improved its performance this year. “The great thing about being at Universal now is that it allows me to think about the studio in a long-term way rather than (just considering) the very next project,” he adds. Blum’s part of the latest addition to the roster — U’s first-look distribution deal with Angle Films, a new shingle announced Nov. 1 and formed by his Blumhouse banner and Gold Circle Films’ Paul Brooks to finance and produce genre films with budgets ranging from $15 million to $30 million. And there’s nothing like signing a deal that says to the town that you’ve arrived, much as David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith did this summer with a two-year first-look deal via their KatzSmith Prods. banner following Grahame-Smith’s work penning the upcoming “Dark Shadows,” with Johnny Depp starring and Tim Burton directing. The duo say that Warner Bros. production prexy Greg Silverman was particularly persuasive. “(They’re) taking a real big bet on us, since we haven’t produced a movie yet,” Grahame-Smith admits. “We weren’t shy about saying that we wanted to produce, and as we got to know Greg, we felt that this was going to be a good place to make our permanent home.” In just a month, KatzSmith has set up three projects — Jonathan W. Stokes’ dark comedy script “Murders and Acquisitions”; Maggie Stiefvater’s young adult fantasy novel “Scorpio Races”; and a new version of “Beetlejuice.” “If you look at the other deals at Warners, I think we’re a pretty good fit, since we kind of specialize in the offbeat and twisted,” Grahame-Smith adds. “We’re not like Clint Eastwood or Legendary or Todd Phillips at Green Hat, and that’s a real benefit to the studio.” For Shawn Levy, his six-year-old deal at Fox has enabled him to move into the upper echelon, dating back to the days when he made the transition from family comedies — “Cheaper by the Dozen” — into the arena of tentpoles in the form of “Night at the Museum.” He recalls that studio co-chief Tom Rothman pressured him for the better of a year to direct “Museum” before he agreed to do so. “?’Night at the Museum’ really changed everything for me,” Levy admits. “My goal is to be prolific. The deal gives me the ability to get things done, and rarely does a week go by where I don’t see the benefits.” Levy stressed that there’s an unspoken benefit of being on the same page with Fox. “They trust me and I trust them,” he notes. “Fox will invest in tentpole family movies like ‘Neighborhood Watch,’ but where it’s additionally gratifying is where I can go ahead on smaller projects like ‘Kodachrome’ and ‘The Pleasure of My Company’ — projects that really engage me as a filmmaker.