U turns production corner

Studio bulking up for 2000 goal: 20-25 pix per year

As other studios have rallied behind the clarion call to cut back on production, the newly revamped production team at Universal Pictures is stubbornly going in the opposite direction.

In an interview this week, U chairman Casey Silver said the studio, which will have distributed just 12 films in 1997, plans to beef up to between 20 and 25 features per year by the turn of the century. The studio will also use some 10% to 15% of its production budget in split-rights deals and co-ventures.

And all this without Steven Spielberg, who was responsible for U’s biggest releases over the last few years.

“We are ramping up slowly,” Silver said. “We are doing it in a gradual and thoughtful way. A major studio releasing about 20 pictures per year is a reasonable agenda.”

Silver has restructured the division with new president of production Marc Platt and co-president of production Stacey Snider, both of whom ankled TriStar Pictures in the last year. Together, the trio has quietly woven a slate of high-profile, star-driven pics for 1998 and 1999, including projects for Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Costner, Martin Lawrence, Chris Farley, Dan Aykroyd, John Travolta, Anthony Hopkins and Ellen DeGeneres.

Conspicuously absent from this group is Sylvester Stallone, who has yet to make any of three pictures he contracted to make for U at $20 million apiece.

But Silver said the goal is to develop projects that fit a “global” approach and that can potentially find ancillary revenue streams through soundtracks, merchandising, international, video and even theme parks. Some of the feature pics that will highlight the upgraded sked include:

“The Mark,” the first production from Will Smith’s overall deal at U.

“Curious George,” based on the popular children’s book series. Imagine Entertainment is producing.

“The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” an event family pic based on the 1960s cartoon.

“Hulk,” based on the comic book and not the TV show, about a scientist who accidentally turns into a super-powerful green monster. Gale Anne Hurd will produce. Jonathan Hensleigh will direct.

“Ed TV,” Ron Howard’s next pic with McConaughey and DeGeneres in a Capra-esque story from Imagine.

“Life,” a drama with Murphy and Lawrence under Ted Demme’s direction. Imagine is also producing.

“Babe: Pig in the City,” a sequel to the hit 1995 feature about a talking pig. James Cromwell, who played the original farmer in the film, will rejoin the cast. George Miller, who co-wrote and co-produced the Oscar nominated first one, will also take on helming chores on this one.

Additionally, sequels to “Casper,” “The Flintstones,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Twister” are in the works.

‘Portfolio pictures’

Silver also pointed out U’s aim to create at least 10 “portfolio pictures” per year. These would be lower-budgeted pics with a solid video afterlife.

As production gears up, Silver, Platt and Snider have had to deal with the stinging departure of Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment, which was responsible for much of U’s high-profile boffo B.O. product like “Jurassic Park,” “The Lost World” and “Schindler’s List.”

“We had to fill that void,” Platt said. “First we had to get the group together. Then we had to go through the material and really try to clean the slate and infuse it with new material. Then we had to figure out what we are going to do now that Amblin is not here.”

Platt and Snider went through a similar dilemma at TriStar when Carolco fell apart and franchise event pics like “Terminator 2” were terminated.

Snider said the answer for TriStar was to take popular titles and franchise-type characters and build around them. “You try to piggyback on the brands that those titles represent,” Snider said. “When you are not fortunate enough to be able to depend on the brilliance of a major supplier, then you have to borrow from other people’s brilliance. The challenge and the fun is to develop stories and do their source material proud.”

Prod’n deals aplenty

U now sports some 31 production deals, some of which have plugged that gap. Armyan Bernstein’s Beacon Pictures, Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Jersey Films with Danny De Vito and Michael Shamberg, and the Zucker brothers account for more than a dozen major projects the studio will release.

Other prolific producers on and off the U lot include Addis/Wechsler, Martin Brest, Jonathan Demme, Albert and Allen Hughes, Hal Lieberman (former prexy of production), Mike Nichols, Atlas Entertainment, Joseph Singer, Brillstein/Grey, Chuck Gordon’s Daybreak Prods., Lawrence Gordon Prods., Demi Moore’s Moving Pictures, Lobell/Bergman Prods., Penny Marshall’s Parkway Prods., Irwin Winkler, Jim Sheridan, Robert Simonds, Raffaella De Laurentiis, Stallone, Stephen Haft, Brian Levant, Reba McEntire, Ben Myron, Bette Midler and Bonnie Bruckheimer, Dark Horse Prods., Phil Alden Robinson and D. Constantine Conti.

Although the number of term deals is comparatively high, insiders said U hopes to see production out of every company.

In that aim, Platt and Snider cleaned house in the production division and recently capped a hiring spree of new execs for the studio. Kevin Misher, who was formerly with Platt and Snider at TriStar, is the only exec VP on staff. Allison Brecker, Leonard Kornberg, Mary Parent and Scott Stuber are at the senior VP level. Eric Hughes and Kool Marder are VPs of production. And Holly Jenkinson, Chris Salvaterra, Lisa Alden and Eric Palma are directors of development.

Why increase?

Silver points to three reasons for the increase in film production:

To build a bigger and better library “at a faster rate.”

To create more “franchise” pictures that have applications in domestic and international distribution, merchandising, soundtracks, video and theme parks

To take “better advantage of the global marketing infrastructure” through its shared distrib org UIP.

Additionally, U plans to spend between $100 million and $150 million on foreign co-ventures and split-rights deals.

Silver is averse to discussing numbers when it comes to the studio. But last year U secured a $1.1 billion off-balance sheet financing deal with Citibank. Sources said production spending is expected to fall between $750 million and $1 billion.

U has been criticized lately for the hole in its distribution pipeline this fall. For more than two months, the studio was left without a release. And U has no major Christmas release.

U insiders attribute this to the lack of “make-able” product in the former regime as well as the loss of Amblin. They also boast that Universal — like most studios — is looking at the bottom line, not necessarily the quantity of the product.

One U spokesman said the studio has the highest per-picture-gross average of any studio at $41.4 million, followed by Sony at $32.2 million, Buena Vista/Disney at $26 million, Warner Bros. at $24.7 million and Paramount at $21.9 million.

1998 slate

U has 14 films planned for 1998: “The Boxer,” “Half-Baked,” “Blues Brothers 2000,” “Primary Colors,” “Mercury Rising,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Meet Joe Black,” “Out of Sight,” “BASEketball,” “Virus,” “One True Thing,” “Babe: Pig in the City,” “Patch Adams” and “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

Other major development projects for 1999 and beyond include:

“The Age of Aquarius,” starring Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas under Phil Alden Robinson’s direction.

“Bofinger,” with Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin from Imagine.

“In Your Dreams,” a romantic comedy directed by Jerry Zucker.

“The Gelfin,” starring Chris Farley and Vince Vaughn and produced by Imagine.

“Thieves,” a romantic caper directed by Gary Fleder and produced by Lawrence Gordon

“The Mummy,” written and helmed by Stephen Sommers.

“Rocket Boys,” helmed by Joe Johnston and produced by Charles Gordon.

“Mystery Men,” an alternative superhero adventure story directed by Ben Stiller for Jersey Films.

“For the Love of the Game,” produced by Sydney Pollack and Amy Robinson with Kevin Costner starring.

Two Penny Marshall-produced pics: “Live from Baghdad” and “Saving Grace.” Marshall may also helm.