Studios end first-look relationships

Strike means opportunity to drop costly deals

With studios starting to drop the ax on staffers in order to cut costs during the strike, development deals with producers may not be far behind.

Paramount, Universal and Fox have ended first-look deals with Reese Witherspoon; Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen; Lynda Obst and Marc Rosen; Betty Thomas; Craig Brewer; George Tillman and Bob Teitel; and Roy Lee and Doug Davison.

Terms of most of the deals had run out in recent weeks, allowing the studios to extricate themselves from expensive relationships as they look for ways to trim costs. Although many of the studios involved said the strike played little to no role in the decision, the timing with the writers strike proved convenient.

Witherspoon’s Type A banner, however, was immediately scooped up by a rival studio. The actress-producer inked a first-look deal with New Line.

“When I heard that her company was available, that’s a home run for us,” New Line prexy Toby Emmerich said from the set of the studio’s “Four Christmases,” which Witherspoon is producing and toplining. “One of the lessons of 2007 was that for certain kinds of movies, really big movie stars are worth their weight and then some.”

None of the deals listed above were likely ended by invoking the force majeure clause enabling studios to cut pacts six weeks into a strike.

Still, cutbacks were announced at Warner Bros. this week. Studio said it planned to notify 1,000 staffers that pinkslips may be coming. In addition, Walden Media’s creative unit is all but shuttered until the company’s ranks are revamped.

The expiration of the deals isn’t necessarily bad news for the producers.

For example, Jinks and Cohen, who had a deal at Par, will now rely on their two-year first-look TV pact with Warner Bros. TV on the Burbank studio lot, which is covering the shingle’s overhead. The duo are producing ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” as part of that deal.

On the film front, they’re also producing a Harvey Milk biopic that Gus Van Sant is helming at Focus Features, with Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch attached to star. Duo had opted not to seek out a new studio deal until after the strike.

Obst and Rosen also have a TV deal to fall back on at CBS Par Network TV, but as is the case with most nonwriting producers, that pact was suspended after the strike began.

Of those affected, three were based at Par: Jinks/Cohen Co., Rosen-Obst Prods. and Brewer. U had deals with Witherspoon’s Type A Films banner and Lee and Davison’s Vertigo Entertainment. Tillman and Teitel’s State Street deal expired Dec. 31 at Fox. The pair still has several projects in development with the studio, including a Notorious B.I.G. biopic at Fox Searchlight. Thomas’ Dominant Films shingle also was housed at Fox. She will continue to collaborate with the studio on such projects as “Valley of the Dolls: The Relapse.”

(Michael Fleming and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)