NEW YORK — Sonnenfeld/Josephson principals Barry Sonnenfeld and Barry Josephson will dissolve their feature production partnership on July 31. That’s the day their three-year first look deal ends at Disney, and also the first day of production of “Big Trouble,” the Disney comedy which Sonnenfeld directs and Sonnenfeld and Josephson produce with Tom Jacobson.
Both Sonnenfeld and Josephson said they will set up their own separate companies, either affiliated with a studio or outside financing. They will continue to work together on a number of projects at Disney, as well as others which the studio put in turnaround.
Sonnenfeld and Josephson leave the studio having so far gotten two films off the ground in a three-year period in which the studio underwent multiple regime changes, and the duo got sidetracked making the disappointing “Wild Wild West” at Warner Bros.
The demise of their Disney deal seems to put them among many producers feeling the sting of studio contraction with less development and few deals for producers who don’t bring their own financing.
But Sonnenfeld and Josephson counter that the legacy of their Disney tenure could be as many as a dozen films which get made over the next few years. The partners said they could have taken a deal elsewhere, but that their split was primarily due to a change in priorities by Sonnenfeld. While Josephson wants to continue to develop and manage a slate film and TV projects, Sonnenfeld wants to focus only on those that he will direct.
The split doesn’t affect their TV deal at Columbia/TriStar, which has another year to go and got a promising pickup by FBC for “The Tick,” a comedy starring “Seinfeld” alum Patrick Warburton. That series will mark their fourth to reach the air.
“I thought I wanted to be a very huge mogul and knew Barry would be a good guy to become a mogul with,” said Sonnenfeld. “Then on weekends, I would feel guilty if I was reading scripts and making notes and not playing with my 7-year-old daughter and having sex with my wife. If I was playing with my daughter and having sex with my wife, I’d feel guilty for not reading the seven scripts laying there in a pile. I realized I really didn’t want to be like Imagine, after all.”
Directors becoming absentee partners when they’re making films isn’t uncommon, but Sonnenfeld said he couldn’t bear it. “I am such a control freak that when ‘Men in Black’ opened in six theaters in New York, I went to each two days before to listen to the sound and made them replace the subwoofers in every theater and on the day it opened, I was in one of the theaters asking people to move over so that others could find seats,” he said. “I just couldn’t be as involved in all the projects as I need to be and not hate myself.”
While there’s some perception that their Disney deal was a pricey one that didn’t lead to as much product as the studio hoped, Sonnenfeld and Josephson said they expect as many as a dozen of the projects they generated at Disney to get made, including four potential directing vehicles for Sonnenfeld, one of which will likely follow “MIB 2.”
- “White Noise,” a Steven Schiff-scripted adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel;
- “Lady Killers,” a Joel and Ethan Coen-scripted remake of the Peter Sellers comedy;
- “Chippendale’s,” a Steven Schiff-scripted black comedy about the founder of the male strip joint and how his rise to success was undermined by drugs, murder and ultimately suicide;
- “The Big Macombo,” a high concept romantic comedy written by “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” scribes Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price which is a co-production between Disney and Warner Bros.
Sonnenfeld and Josephson said the progression of their deal was hampered by the radical shift in upper management and change in the Mouse movie mandate.
“Three years ago when we said yes to Joe Roth and Donald DeLine over three other studios, we were incredibly productive in the first seven months,” said Josephson, the former Columbia production prexy. “Then, Donald wasn’t there, then David Vogel was there and then he wasn’t. Then Joe wasn’t there and Todd Garner wasn’t there. Even though Peter Schneider and Nina Jacobson were very enthusiastic, we weren’t their deal.”
Despite that, Sonnenfeld said Schneider was chiefly responsible for what will be their third project to make it into production. “Enchanted,” a live action-animated mix about a princess banished from her animated world until she finds love in the real world, had been mothballed by a previous regime, but fast tracked by Schneider, who brought in Rita Shaio, whose credits include “Mulan” and “Toy Story 2,” to rewrite Bill Kelly’s script. Rob Marshall has been hired to direct the film, and Eric Goldberg to supervise the animation. The animation work starts now, while the live action photography will begin next April.
Other projects include: “Dummy,” a Marc Hyam-scripted road comedy on which Sonnenfeld/Josephson are partnered with Bonnie and Terry Turner; “The Killer” as a star vehicle for their “Big Trouble” star Tim Allen, with Phil Tag rewriting John Hamburg’s script about a taxi driver set up to take a fall for an infamous hitman; and “The Foolish Club,” a Jim Miller-scripted pic about how Lamar Hunt started the National Football League.
Round and round
Disney put numerous projects in turnaround, and Sonnenfeld/Josephson are laboring to get those made elsewhere, with Sonnenfeld allowing that “We have enough turnarounders to start a small studio.”
Among those is “Tin Man,” an L.A. noir detective tale which Anthony Bagarozzi is writing and John Frankenheimer has agreed to direct, with Sonnenfeld and Josephson producing with Shane Black; “Vesper,” a horror pic about an airborne mutant creature which terrorizes Gotham, scripted by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (who wrote “Double Jeopardy” and “The Rock”); and “Whispers and Bedlam,” a drama scripted by Gerald DiPego (“Phenomenon”), which Sonnenfeld and Josephson are producing with Brillstein-Grey and Howard Rosenman.
The changing priorities of incoming and outgoing studio bosses was evidenced by “The Crew,” a pic which the studio abandoned, only to sign on as distributor when Sonnenfeld/Josephson found financing elsewhere. The studio will open the Michael Dinner-directed pic Aug. 25 with Burt Reynolds and Richard Dreyfuss heading the ensemble.
Despite what both Sonnenfeld and Josephson called a healthy respect for current management, they said they weren’t disappointed to be exiting the studio.
“The new Disney wants to make animated and G-rated movies, with a few Jerry Bruckheimer films mixed in,” said Sonnenfeld. “The movies Barry and I generated have this quirky envelope around them that I never felt this regime wanted to be making. Also, since I know I’ll likely follow ‘Big Trouble’ with another ‘Men in Black’ and then another one for Disney, I didn’t want to make another deal with Barry at another studio knowing I’d be busy. I felt that one of the unmentioned problems at Disney came after we signed and I went to work at Warner Bros. on ‘Wild Wild West.’ Even though they knew I’d be doing that when we signed,” said Sonnenfeld, “there was still a feeling of, where’s the other Barry, we hired two of them?”