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Cameron’s Lightstorm Docks At Fox

Nearly three years and two films after announcing the formation of his Lightstorm Entertainment, James Cameron has tired of playing international film financier. Twentieth Century Fox has structured a new, exclusive deal that will allow the director to concentrate on moviemaking again.

Under the terms of the first-look pact, Fox will be the sole financier of Lightstorm’s high-octane productions, and in exchange the studio will own all worldwide rights to Lightstorm’s films.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s new deal is the latest example of a top filmmaker deciding to abandon his dreams of being a one-man studio to return to making movies.

“My original premise was to make a deal structure and spend six months putting the mechanism in motion,” said Cameron. “I thought it would be like a cookie cutter that I could use on every subsequent production. But each project is different, so you lose time just trying to set up movies.”

The new deal works well with Fox’s strategic mandate from News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch to own all worldwide rights on its films – and with Cameron’s realization that running an international film company was cutting into his productivity as a filmmaker.

“Getting Jim Cameron has been my Holy Grail since I started at Fox,” said Peter Chernin, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment. “We are nothing if not an international company. And one of our mandates is to provide films to feed our international distribution pipelines, which is not just Fox, but also all the various News Corp. operations around the world. And Cameron is one of the most profitable filmmakers in the world market when it comes to event movies.”

Lightstorm’s Cameron was one of the most ambitious examples of a filmmaker attempting to become an entrepreneur and own the negatives of his pics.

After Fox stepped up in 1992 with a multiyear, multiple commitment valued at $500 million, Cameron went to the Cannes Film Festival and crafted a patchwork of alliances with such offshore distributors as Japan’s Nippon Herald Films, Germany’s Jugendfilm and Italy’s Artisti Associati. Those companies each agreed to shell out 12.5% of the films’ budgets in exchange for distribution rights in their territories.

UIP to the rescue

Several months later, United Intl. Pictures agreed to shoulder the remaining 30% of Lightstorm’s production budgets in exchange for the remaining foreign territories. Lightstorm committed to nine films over five years – three of which Cameron would personally write and direct, plus six titles he would produce. Those arrangements expire in May 1997 but were on a film-by-film basis.

According to Cameron, each of those distributors will likely receive one more title from Lightstorm, something in the $40 million budget range of “Strange Days,” which Cameron produced; he will not direct the film.

The first title Cameron will write and direct for Fox will be his Titanic project, which is planned for a spring or summer release in 1997. And depending upon how Fox’s planned acquisition of Carolco Pictures’ library plays out, Cameron could follow the Titanic project with bigscreen adaptations of “Spiderman,” “Terminator 3” and Anne Rice’s “The Mummy.”

“I’ve told Peter Chernin that I’m ready to direct ‘Spiderman’ and a ‘Terminator’ sequel,” Cameron told Variety. “The other thing I want to concentrate on is developing a number of different projects simultaneously which I could either produce or direct.”

“We are the only offer on the Carolco library, which is now in bankruptcy court,” said Fox Filmed Entertainment president Bill Mechanic. “And we’re trying to make these films happen, and we’re confident that we will, because it just doesn’t make sense for someone to produce ‘Spiderman’ or a’ Terminator’ sequel without Jim Cameron.”

Lightstorm’s offshore alliances showed the first signs of strain in the summer of 1993, when the budget of “True Lies” ballooned well above the $60 million ceiling set in the initial agreements, and Cameron couldn’t get completion financing.

Lightstorm’s then president Larry Kasanoff ankled the company and went on to produce the hit “Mortal Kombat” for New Line Cinema. Fox stepped up and acted as the primary financier, arranging for the completion bond on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Chernin had just stepped in as chairman of the studio, and the friendship between the filmmaker and the executive was tempered in the forge of that troubled production.

Wordsworthian woes

In subsequent months, Cameron may have started to feel like the protagonist of William Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us”: “Getting and spending, he laid waste his powers.” And he started talking with Chernin about coming over to Fox.

Currently Rae Sanchini is president of Lightstorm, and she, along with his attorney Bert Fields, negotiated Cameron’s new deal. The courtship began earlier this fall and closed in early December. Further cementing the relationship between the filmmaker and the studio is Cameron’s recent hire of former Fox executive VP Jon Landau.

While either Warner Bros, or Universal would have been interested in picking up Cameron’s deal, the filmmaker went to Fox’s Chernin directly rather than shopping the company around.

Model mess

“The model I had created for Lightstorm fell apart on the first movie, and if it weren’t for Peter Chernin, I don’t know what would have happened,” Cameron said. “We went through the fire together on ‘True Lies,’ and he didn’t blink, so l never thought of setting my company up anywhere else.”

Cameron dismissed speculation that the Titanic project carries a budget of more than $125 million. “I can safely say that I would never put together an enterprise of that scale, ” he said. “Anyone who is coming up with a budget is pulling it out of thin air. Basically, there has only been one film on that scale that we know of, ‘Waterworld,’ and that was a different kind of film. We are going to be shooting primarily on soundstages, and we are not going to have any big stars. So I anticipate it being less expensive than my last two films.”

Nevertheless, Fox definitely is looking to Cameron for blockbusters. And with the studio far along in its negotiations to acquire the library of Carolco Pictures, Lightstorm may soon find itself in active development on the Rice novel, which tells the story of an ancient Egyptian who is revived in Edwardian England. The “Spiderman” project has long been trapped in multiparty litigation. The web-slinging superhero is particularly close to Cameron’s heart, as he has often cited the Marvel comic book as a childhood influence.

Regardless of influences, Cameron is set to join a studio that is increasingly chock-a-block with producers who make blockbusters. Arnold Kopelson is set to join the Fox fold in January 1997, and Christopher Columbus’ 1492 Prods, is already churning out product for the studio.

The special 15-year relationship between the studio and Cameron, whose movies have grossed well over $1 billion in worldwide revenues, began with “Aliens” and reached a new level in April 1992, when Fox entered into a five-year, 12-picture deal with Lightstorm.

Fox funding

Back then, Fox agreed to shoulder 30% of production costs and 100% of the promotion and advertising budgets on Lightstorm titles. The films were meant to be budgeted in the $40 million to $60 million range. In exchange, Fox got rights to theatrical distribution, video and all TV in the U.S., Canada and several foreign territories.

Under the terms of the new first-look deal, Cameron will write, produce and direct event pictures for the studio. And the deal calls for Lightstorm to develop potential TV programming for the studio as well as produce several low-budget titles. Lightstorm will remain housed off the lot in Santa Monica, Calif.

“It’s a classic studio deal, but not that classic,” suggested Cameron. “I hate having offices on the lot.”

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