‘T3’ maverick methods

Exex talk of producing big pix outside usual channels

“We don’t work well in a studio environment,” C2 partner and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” producer Andy Vajna said on Saturday in an interview with Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart.

“Studios are great distributors,” Vajna said. “But they’re like elephants. They’re slow to move and slow to react.”

Vajna and Intermedia chair Moritz Borman discussed the benefits and risks of producing big movies outside the usual studio channels on the second day of Variety‘s Cannes Conference Series.

The two execs were in the midst of a junket for “T3,” their independently produced and studio-distributed summer tentpole.

Vajna and C2 partner Mario Kassar acquired rights to the “Terminator” franchise and set it up at Intermedia before shopping the third installment to distribs last year. Warner Bros. has the pic Stateside; Sony Intl. has it overseas.

It’s an arrangement that gave Vajna and Kassar a high measure of control over production and marketing, Vajna said.

He said C2 was spurned by the studios after independently buying the “T3” franchise rights. “They thought we were idiots for buying the rights.”

“We needed something to hook Arnold,” the exec said. “As soon as Arnold read the script, he was on board.”

With a budget said to be close to $200 million, “T3” may be the most ambitious, independent pic in Hollywood history. But Vajna and Borman declined to discuss the money.

“We don’t want to be reviewed for the number of dollars spent on entertaining the public,” Vajna said. “Their cost is the same — $9 a ticket. If we spend a lot of money entertaining them, they should be thankful.”

“The most expensive picture,” he added, “is the one that doesn’t make back its money.”

Borman suggested mid-range movies can be even riskier than big-budget tentpoles. Following “K-PAX” and “The Quiet American,” which met with disappointing results at the U.S. box office, Intermedia plans to steer clear of productions in the middle budget range, he said.

“Those are the ones that are difficult to make your money back on,” Boorman said, pointing to the rising costs of P&A as a key problem. “The studio has to pick very carefully what it wants to throw $35 million at for the opening weekend.”

Asked if Intermedia will go public, Borman said, “Don’t ask me.”

But he allowed that it’s been instructive to talk with Vajna and Kassar about their experience with Carolco, whose bankruptcy Vajna attributed in part to its massive overhead and an ill-conceived public stock offering.

“Carolco wasn’t designed to be a major studio,” Vajna said. “It was designed by Mario and me as a boutique,”

Borman said Intermedia recently reined in its overhead expenses by canceling overall deals with a number of production shingles.

“The overhead to support these companies was too huge to support their output,” he said.

Both producers talked of ongoing projects. Borman said Intermedia is committed to making two tentpole movies a year, and Vajna talked of his efforts to bring back the Rambo franchise.

“We’ve talked to Sly at length,” Vajna said about Sylvester Stallone. But Vajna and Kassar don’t own the rights, which were picked up by Miramax in the Carolco bankruptcy auction.

“He wouldn’t be the hot, young leading star he used to be,” Vajna said. “But you could do an intelligent picture.”

Asked if it was intimidating to open their pic in the shadow of “The Matrix Reloaded,” Vajna said, “I don’t think it’s a shadow. We should be out there celebrating that it’s become such a phenomenon.”

The R rating for “Matrix” bodes well for “T3,” Vajna said. (Though “T3” hasn’t yet been submitted to the ratings board, it’s expected to receive an R.) “Nobody thought an R picture could open to these numbers,” Vajna said. “It’s a great boost.”

At the end of the panel, more of the “T3” team materialized, including director Jonathan Mostow and producers Kassar, Hal Lieberman and Joel B. Michaels.

Vajna had high praise for Mostow.

“We looked for a director who wasn’t yet a star, who had the talent and ambition to step into Jim Cameron’s shoes. He grew up on Carolco movies.”

The producers and Sony’s international team will be screening a trailer at Cannes, but only long-lead journalists will get see footage from “T3,” and it will only be a few minutes of footage.

Asked why they weren’t screening more of the movie, Vajna recounted the production of “First Blood,” in which he and Kassar tried to sell the movie to Warner Bros. after putting together 18 minutes; the studio passed.

“We later showed an hour and 10 minutes at the AFM and got a standing ovation,” he said.

“You might as well show the whole movie or show nothing,” Kassar said.

“Just putting eye candy together is really cheating everybody,” Borman said.

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