‘Cliffhanger’ leaves Carolco high and dry

Even if “Cliffhanger” lives up to its blockbuster potential, Carolco Pictures won’t see a dime from it for years.

The movie, which has its world preem Thursday at Cannes, looks to be more of a boon to distributor TriStar Pictures than to the struggling indie that made it , a result of the unprecedented Carolco-TriStar financing deal.

That deal underscores both Carolco’s precarious position and the unrivaled ability of deep-pocketed major studios to call the shots on huge films that they didn’t develop.

Although Carolco developed the “Cliffhanger” script, put together the deal, secured completion bonding and with foreign partners put up more than a third of the $ 60 million budget, the company essentially has no better deal than that of a producer on a studio lot.

According to TriStar, that’s only fair.

“‘Cliffhanger’ would never have been made if we hadn’t stepped in when Carolco asked us to restructure the financing of the film and agreed to increase our investment to become the dominant investor in the film,” said Ken Lemberger, TriStar vice chairman.

A sneak preview of the pic, starring Sylvester Stallone and helmed by Renny Harlin, indicated that Carolco prexy Mario Kassar can still produce the company’s trademark big-budget, big-name action films.

But Carolco won’t be getting in on the action any time soon.

“We have the worst distribution deal possible,” said one Carolco insider. “We have no returns.”

In return for providing nearly half the film’s production budget, TriStar took all North American rights — including theatrical, homevideo and TV ancillary rights. It also owns many rights in key foreign territories including France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico.

Usually, TriStar only gets a fee for domestic theatrical distribution of Carolco pix, with no homevid, TV or foreign rights.

“We have a terrific deal on this picture,” TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy said.

Carolco, on the other hand, “doesn’t get anything back on ‘Cliffhanger’ in almost every territory until the distributors in those territories make back their investment, plus their expenses, plus a fee,” said a TriStar exec close to the deal. “Carolco won’t share in the revenue stream until TriStar has made back its costs plus a fee.”

The film’s budget came in between $ 58 million and $ 60 million, and TriStar’s investment, before P&A, was in excess of $ 28 million, according to sources.

The budget includes about $ 10 million in expenses related to weather delays, which are supposedly covered under the production’s insurance policy, the sources said.

Carolco reportedly is poring over Italian weather reports from the period of the shoot in an effort to convince insurer Albert G. Ruben & Co. that weather was the cause of problems.

Not until after local distribs make their profit do Carolco and its partners (Italy’s RCS, Japan’s Pioneer and France’s Canal Plus) share in net revenues.

Those investors can only hope “Cliffhanger” has the staying power of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”