‘Rings’ team nabs a ‘King’s’ ransom

Trio to share writing duties, $20 mil for redo

Peter Jackson will earn a King Kong-sized salary when he directs the ape remake: In one of the largest deals ever made with a director, Universal will pay $20 million against 20% of the gross.

Jackson will share that fee with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, the duo with whom he wrote “The Lord of the Rings” films. The trio shares writing duties on “King Kong.” And part of the compensation goes to Walsh for producing the film with him.

The deal crafted by ICM’s Ken Kamins and attorney Peter Nelson is not only precedent-setting, but is also a household record, since Walsh and Jackson live together in New Zealand.

Eight-figure salaries have been reached by a handful of writer-directors including M. Night Shyamalan. And directors like Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis have drawn richer deals on pictures, but they typically take low upfront fees and are compensated with higher percentage points in their gross deals.

The $20 million advance puts Jackson in the same territory as stars like Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson.

There will be no other gross players on “King Kong,” which has been greenlit and is slotted for Christmas 2005.

Jackson’s payday is tied to bringing in the film at an agreed-upon budget. The compensation doesn’t include funds Universal will invest to shoot the film in New Zealand.

Jackson is a one-third owner in the special effects house Weta and a part owner of the Camperdown Soundstages and Film Unit, a post-production facility.

Most of the film work will be done in those venues, which Jackson road-tested and staffed during the making of “The Lord of the Rings.”

U execs paid the salary to coax Jackson and Walsh to dive back in and direct another tentpole.

After spending an exhausting amount of time for the past three years on the “Rings” trilogy, Jackson and Walsh pined to next make a smaller film on the level of their “Heavenly Creatures.”

Though other studios had been vying to sign Jackson’s next film, Universal chairman Stacey Snider apparently knew she had the one that could make the director go ape.

U held the rights to “King Kong” — which was Jackson’s favorite as a child and whose classic memorabilia still decorates his office.

Jackson and Walsh wrote numerous drafts of a “King Kong” remake as recently as 1997, only to see Universal shy away because Disney was remaking “Mighty Joe Young” and Sony was redoing “Godzilla.”

Jackson’s negotiating position has strengthened considerably since then.

The three “Rings” installments cost some $350 million, but “Fellowship of the Rings” has grossed $860 million and “The Two Towers” has grossed $910 million.

By the time the Dec. 17 opener “Return of the King” completes its theatrical run, the combined grosses of the trilogy should near $3 billion.