H’wood deals start to unreel

Studio shakeups point to slashed rosters

Click here to view the “Facts on Pacts” chart

Pay no attention to the chart that accompanies this article.

On paper, this round of Facts on Pacts doesn’t look much different from the one Variety printed six months ago — except that over the next six to 12 months, about 30 of these deals will disappear.

MGM and United Artists now are owned by Sony, but MGM will continue to administer its 22 production deals until they expire. Except for Barbara Broccoli’s Danjaq, most deals won’t be picked up by Sony.

Bob and Harvey Weinstein have said Dimension will continue to operate at their new company. However, it’s unclear how many deals that new company might choose to support. Disney has not made any commitment to Miramax production deals after the Weinsteins leave the Mouse House Sept. 30.

Uncertain lion

When Sony completed its purchase of the Lion last month, producers at MGM and United Artists had no idea what was supposed to happen with their production pacts.

“I’m heading into another meeting with business affairs,” said one MGM producer, “and when I get out, I expect to know absolutely nothing, which is as much as I know now.”

Many producers had contract law on their side, with clauses specifying that in the case of a studio takeover or buyout, the new owner would bear identical responsibilities to their production company.

While the rider was designed to ensure they didn’t come to work one day and find the locks had been changed, it also gave hope of building relationships with the new company — perhaps even making a new production deal.

Sony neatly dodged this possibility by maintaining that MGM and UA continue to be responsible for their own deals. It’s a smart strategy, since Sony must contend with the care and feeding of 32 producers of its own.

Some producers say they’ve been told not to worry about violating their first-looks and that they can take their projects anywhere without fear that MGM will cut off the electricity over contract violations.

However, an MGM rep said the studio will honor all obligations to its production companies — and producers are obligated to submit their projects to the studio, per their contracts.

This begs the question of who is supposed to be taking a first or second look at these would-be MGM and UA projects.

Former MGM exec Elizabeth Cantillon is moving over to the Sony lot to become an executive VP at Columbia Pictures, but her new responsibilities do not include helping MGM and UA producers with their deals.

So who’s doing the looking? Said an MGM rep, “The details to those operations are still being defined.”

It’s a worst-case scenario, one that might make a few producers settle out early.

While MGM is keeping producers off the streets, it’s also negated the core reasons a producer might want a deal in the first place: Someone to call and the backing that gives people a reason to take their calls.

Many producers say their deals are less about the money than the ability to call an agent or executive and identify yourself as being part of a larger and more powerful entity.

“It’s more of an emotional thing,” says a producer based at Warner Bros. “There’s prestige in being on the lot. It’s nice to be able to call an agent and say, ‘It’s (producer’s name) at Warner Bros.’ ”

Divorce limbo

If MGM and UA producers are Sony’s red-headed stepchildren, Disney and Miramax are acting like a couple whose divorce papers are drawn up, but neither one can afford to move out.

The Weinsteins have yet to reveal the blueprints for that new company. However, they’ve publicly declared their dedication to providing a long-term home for current Miramax producers Quentin Tarantino, John Madden, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack’s Mirage and Kevin Smith’s View Askew as well as Dimension producer Robert Rodriguez’s Los Hooligans.

Other producers at Dimension, which will follow the Weinstein brothers, have been told they can expect their deals to continue under their current terms. (A Disney rep told Variety the Mouse House has not made any plans for production deals at Miramax Redux.)

As for what Miramax and Dimension producers are supposed to do between now and Sept. 30 — well, they will occupy a particularly awkward state of limbo.

Like MGM and UA, Miramax and Dimension producers remain under their first-look requirements. However, current Miramax and Dimension employees have their own reasons to be less than keen about aiding that process.

If the Weinsteins take a first look at a project, they would be considering it for their new, post-Miramax company. If a Miramax employee does work for the Weinsteins that falls outside Disney’s purview, it requires the employee to sign a legal waiver — one that frees Disney from paying them for the “outside” work and essentially makes them temporary unpaid workers for Weinstein Co.

Between financing their new company and releasing more than a dozen films, no one’s expecting the Weinsteins to buy much between now and September. However, the conundrum illustrates why some producers are complaining that even the simplest tasks seem to be temporarily tangled in a space-time continuum.

“If you hear anything about my deal,” one Dimension producer said, “would you let me know?”

Studio squeeze

The terrain may be the trickiest for those at Miramax and MGM, but all producers now face a more hostile studio landscape.

The industry’s 10 producer patrons are now eight. All of them continue to look hard at the deals that occupy their valuable real estate.

Elie Samaha’s Franchise Films lost its Warner Bros. Pictures imprimatur before “A Sound of Thunder” found a release date.

Also on the outs are Mel Gibson’s Icon, Jennifer Lopez’s Nuyorican, Neil LaBute’s Pretty Pictures and Kimberly Peirce, who hasn’t made a film since her 1999 debut, “Boys Don’t Cry.”

The good news is that having a deal is — well, no big deal.

The days of lavish pacts are long gone. The few that remain — Imagine Entertainment, Silver Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer — are blockbuster producers with track records that stretch back three decades.

Today, a producer is more likely to cut a deal that offers only a small guarantee; for others, it’s just the desk and the phone.

Still, it’s human nature to want what you don’t have, and producers say studios sometimes take their on-lot producers for granted.

“It puts you in a first-look situation when every studio wants to work with me anyway,” says one producer who spent more than five years on his own before moving on a lot. “Basically, when you can get a deal, you don’t need one.”