Castle Rock autonomy reckons with WB's economy

For Castle Rock Entertainment, the title of Clint Eastwood’s upcoming “Absolute Power” is absolutely appropriate.

Castle Rock is readying for talks with new step-parent Warner Bros. to see just how much absolute power the one-time boutique indie will have in Bugs Bunny’s universe.

Top on the list this month will be finding an outside investor for the company, and until then it will not be com-pletely clear how much autonomy Castle Rock will have under the new arrangement.

Castle Rock also is the latest Turner company to face the music following the merger with Time Warner.

Turner Pictures has been absorbed by Warner Bros. and, except for animation personnel, the studio has largely taken on only producing deals with Denise Di Novi and Dawn Steel’s Atlas Entertainment, as well as 40 or so projects, while Turner execs have gone elsewhere. New Line’s fate is still pending, but sources say New Line chairman Robert Shaye may be close to a deal.

Castle Rock chairman Alan Horn says they are on the lookout for a company that can pony up the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to run Castle Rock.

“No one is going to take a partner for $20 million,” Horn says. “Servicing partners is time-consuming. There’s a threshold below which it really doesn’t make sense.”

The investment questions — such as how much of a stake a new group would take — are expected to play a major part in the structure of Castle Rock’s autonomy under Warner Bros.

According to Castle Rock, the company will maintain complete autonomy, as stipulated by its original employment contract with Turner Broadcasting System. In 1993, when Turner bought Castle Rock and New Line Cinema, it gave them carte blanche to run things the way they wanted.

But under Warner Bros., Castle Rock will not only make fewer pictures — roughly four to six per year — but will find itself consulting heavily with studio executives and reporting to WB chairmen and co-CEOs Robert Daly and Terry Semel.

Times have changed

That was an incomprehensible scenario for Castle Rock a year ago. Like their brethren New Line Cinema in the former Turner world, Castle Rock was adamant about reporting directly and only to Ted Turner, who is now the vice chairman of Time Warner.

They’re a little less insistent now. “This is sort of something that Ted has told me he would like us to work out with Bob and Terry,” says Horn. “But we would not have any discussions with anyone were it not for Ted.”

Castle Rock Pictures president Martin Shafer maintains that the company will have greenlight capability — within limits.

“We have the autonomy, but we’re cognizant of the fact that Time Warner owns our company,” he says. “While we can make what we want, we don’t want to do anything over their dead body. We’re looking to work with them, not against them. They own us. They’re our partners.”

For the short term, Castle Rock will continue to be distributed through the end of 1997 by Columbia Pictures, a deal set up five years ago.

Cuts will be expected in Castle Rock staffing, which currently numbers about 150 employees. Preferring to call it “assimilation” into WB, Horn says none of those decisions has been made. But two areas that will likely be targeted are marketing and international distribution.

Small production department

Shafer said it was unlikely that the production team under prexy of production Liz Glotzer would be re-duced. “We have such a small department anyway,” he said.

Castle Rock will likely be operating on an annual production budget of just over $200 million, which would roughly cover the costs of four to six films with budgets at the Motion Picture Assn. of America average of $36.4 million, give or take budget overages. If the company finds an outside partner, then WB will maintain an interest, but it’s not yet clear how much the studio is eager to retain.

Warner Bros. sources say that it is too early to tell how much autonomy the company will have: It depends on the investor.

In trying to be good “corporate citizens,” Shafer and Horn are both treading lightly with Warner Bros. “We’re go-ing to think very hard before we do a $50 million picture that these guys hate,” says Shafer. “I don’t see that happening, that we would insist on doing a movie that we love and that they hate.”

In its history, Castle Rock has gained a reputation as a filmmaking haven largely friendly to helmers, with the company’s autonomy and that given to its filmmakers among the lures.

Paradise lost

But Castle Rock has been stung in the last two years by big-budget pictures that didn’t quite perform to ex-pectation, such as “The American President” and “City Hall.”

On the smaller-film front, “Othello” and “Lone Star” were critically acclaimed, but haven’t made back their budg-ets. “Hamlet” has been selling out in its limited release, averaging $30,000 per screen last weekend. But it’s unlikely to generate back enough to cover its $18 million budget, though execs are hopeful for the overseas market.

Expect some tweaking of the company’s strategy as it heads to WB.

Borrowing a line from the current hit “Jerry Maguire,” Shafer says Castle Rock isn’t as interested in smaller boutique pictures as they once were. “If a ‘Lone Star’ comes in the door, of course we’ll do it, but we’re not looking to do smaller-budget pictures. We’re looking to make mainstream. Our motto for 1997: Show me the money.”

In fact, meetings already have been held between Warner Bros. execs and those at Castle Rock to go through the company’s development slate.

Castle Rock currently has dozens of projects in development, and insiders say that WB execs are high on a handful. A few include a thriller project for Tom Cruise to star in and Rob Reiner to direct from a William Goldman script. Shafer says it may be Reiner’s next movie.

Others include “The High Ground,” another Tom Cruise project that he will also produce with partner Paula Wagner, with Jim Sheridan is currently in talks to helm; “Otherwise Engaged” by Mark Lawrence, a comedy set for Hugh Grant to star; and “My Giant” by David Seltzer, a pic set to shoot this summer with Billy Crystal starring.

Ironically enough, Castle Rock’s next best hope is with a WB institution, Clint Eastwood, who directs and stars in “Absolute Power.”

Test screenings on the movie have been absolutely positive. Castle Rock is counting on the film to bring them out of their box office rut.

As Horn says: “You know the expression, ‘You’re only as good as your last picture.’ Well, we’re certainly optimistic about Clint’s picture. We have the highest respect for Clint.”