Studios Re-Rack Production Pacts

Big Six split from some names but overall numbers hold

With the first-look deal becoming less and less popular, even big-name pic producers are finding studio love harder to hold onto amid a rockier Hollywood landscape.

Universal is emblematic of the trend. Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman are without a deal for their Playtone banner at their longtime home, as are Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey and their Film 44 shingle.

Playtone has a long list of pics in development at Universal, including an adaptation of “In the Garden of the Beasts,” which U bought for Playtone in 2011, and Neil Gaiman novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” for Focus. Goetzman tells Variety that the Playtone deal no longer worked in the current environment.

“It was a decision that Playtone and Universal came to mutually,” he says. “We love working together, and are continuing to do so, but to have a long-term commitment didn’t make sense for either of us at this time. We will now have the opportunity to find the perfect home for each of our projects individually.”

Berg’s departure comes in the wake of his directing and producing U’s box office disappointment “Battleship” and the upcoming Mark Wahlberg starrer “Lone Survivor.”

Besides the deals expiring for Playtone and Film 44 — which still has a TV deal with Universal — Marc Abraham-Eric Newman’s Strike Entertainment’s first-look at U ended when the production company decided to dissolve. During the past decade, Strike was an active supplier, averaging a title per year, including “Dawn of the Dead” and “The Thing.”

Universal’s distribution pact with Morgan Creek has expired. Universal still has 31 deals, including heavyweights such as Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine, Chris Meledandri’s Illumination and Scott Stuber’s Bluegrass. Additionally, the studio has signed fresh distribution pacts with Michael Eisner’s Tornante and Joel Silver, who reached a settlement with Warner Bros. last year to end his long-time relationship there.

Sony has lopped off half a dozen deals — Aardman Animations, Peter Baynham, Clifford Werber’s Fluent Entertainment, Graham King’s GK Films, Sid Ganis’ Out of the Blue and Sam Raimi’s Stars Road — while adding Michael Costigan.

The first-look deal is not yet an endangered species; studios still find it worthwhile to pay overhead in exchange for first crack at coming on to projects.

Fox has added a trio of new deals: Paul Feig, Carlos Saldanha and the Wyck Godfrey-Marty Bowen partnership, while ending its pact with John Moore’s Point Road.

Still, deals at the six Hollywood majors have remained stable in recent years, with the total number of first-looks in the 140-150 range, according to Variety ’s Facts on Pacts compilation. The current number is 145, a 3% drop from the 150 in Variety ’s October survey.

Still, that’s half what was on the books in 2002. And it’s a longterm trend that will probably continue, with studios betting more and more of their resources on tentpoles and franchises.

“I think the thinking is that the corporations need fewer producers,” notes Marshall Herskovitz, who served as president of the Producers Guild of America between 2006 and 2010.

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Herskovitz and longtime producing partner Ed Zwick had a first-look pact through their Bedford Falls shingle with Warner Bros. that expired in 2008, after delivering “Blood Diamond.” Since then, the pair has produced “Love and Other Drugs” and has continued to develop TV projects, including one set in the Weimar Republic of Germany during the 1920s.

“The studios believe that if a producer is motivated, he or she will find a way,” Herskovitz notes. “An unintended consequence is that it’s become more difficult for an independent producer to make a living in Hollywood.”

Relativity has gotten out of the first-look biz entirely. Its pacts with Iron Horse Entertainment (Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin), and Red Om (Julia Roberts, Lisa Roberts Gillan and Phil Rose) — have expired.

Paramount ended its co-financing pact with Montecito Picture Co., but it has maintained 14 other deals, including Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Bad Robot (J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk), David Ellison’s Skydance and Brad Pitt’s Plan B.

Disney — which now owns Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm — still has 14 pacts, most notably with Jerry Bruckheimer, Andrew Panay’s Panay Films, David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman’s Mandeville and Mark Gordon, while letting its deal with Debra Martin Chase expire.

Warner Bros. remains home to the largest number of deals at 37 (including New Line’s), adding pacts with Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram; Adam Shankman’s deal with New Line expires at the end of April. A key question is whether Warner’s co-financing pact with Legendary Entertainment — which covers “Pacific Rim,” “Godzilla,” “42,” “Man of Steel” and “Jack the Giant Slayer” — will be extended.

In one sign of how tough the producing environment is, Legendary and Warner-based producers Dan Lin and Roy Lee are in a legal battle over their removal from “Godzilla.” Lin, Lee and Doug Davison have alleged breach of contract over screen credit and fixed and backend compensation.

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