Outsiders arriving in Hollywood with deep pockets, a desire to make movies and a reliance on gut instinct often lose their shirts.
But Thomas Tull has defied the odds, co-financing and producing 17 pics through his Legendary Pictures banner that have earned more than $4 billion combined. His secret: He’s a fan of genre fare who’s focused on creating films for fellow fanboys.
Through a close financial relationship with Warner Bros., in which Legendary ponies up half the budget of a film in exchange for half the profits, Tull has helped revive the Batman franchise, sent Superman soaring again, ignited Hollywood’s interest in graphic novels that aren’t based on superheroes with “300,” and proved with “The Hangover” that comedies made for dudes can haul in a lot at the box office. Up next are a more faithful remake of “Godzilla” and a bigscreen version of popular vidgame “World of Warcraft.”
While many producers have embraced genre fare as a calculated ploy, Tull does it because he proudly touts himself as one of the fanboys.
“All you have to do is meet Thomas,” says one Warner Bros. exec. “He’s a total geek and makes movies geeks want to see. He’s not shy about that.”
But unlike most people in Hollywood, Tull prefers to avoid the spotlight. In fact, he rarely grants interviews, ultimately treating directors and the films themselves as the stars that should command audiences’ attention. And if Legendary becomes a brand name to filmgoers along the way, all the better.
There’s no magic formula to Legendary’s success other than relying on Tull’s taste and instincts, according to those close to the exec. He tends to stay away from producing romantic comedies (he probably wouldn’t know what to do with a “Devil Wears Prada” or “The Proposal”) and most dramas (though Ben Affleck’s crime tale “The Town” is forthcoming). And despite backing Zack Snyder’s last three movies, Tull didn’t put his money behind the Snyder-helmed toon “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”
Tull generally sticks with things he knows, which means commercial films with a sense of adventure but that can be appreciated by adults. The former president of Atlanta-based new-media firm the Convex Group also believes that almost every great movie comes from a singular vision. So he lets directors essentially run with their creative ideas and remains relatively hands-off once a project has been developed and agreed upon.
That means letting films be dark in tone or R-rated when they need to be. Tull wanted “The Dark Knight’s” edgier vibe because Batman is a vigilante. And “300” needed to let the blood flow in order to be a true adaptation of Frank Miller’s red-splattered graphic novel.
“Inception” marks Tull’s third film with Christopher Nolan; “Sucker Punch” is his third with Snyder. After “The Hangover,” Tull reteamed with Todd Phillips for the comedy “Due Date” and a “Hangover” sequel. And Bryan Singer is returning to Legendary after “Superman Returns” to helm “Jack and the Giant Killer.”
“We try to approach our relationships with the world-class filmmakers we’re fortunate enough to work with as a kind of patronage,” says Jon Jashni, chief creative officer of Legendary, who had previously been prexy of Hyde Park Entertainment.
Of course, what helps — and has given Tull the freedom to pursue the projects he’s passionate about — is the $500 million he initially raised from banks and private equity firms in 2005 and brought to the table.
Legendary’s winning streak has enabled Tull to take risks, as with Spike Jonze’s surreal-but-faithfully dreamy adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” and Snyder’s “Watchmen,” after studios spent decades trying to adapt the graphic novel that reinvented the superhero genre.
Legendary, like most financiers, doesn’t have a perfect batting average. The poor reception for “The Ant Bully” and “We Are Marshall” may have influenced Tull to veer away from traditional kidpics and dramas. And, most recently “Jonah Hex,” based on the DC Comics series, did not draw in auds to see the film’s scarred cowboy. Reviewers also cast a Medusa-like glare on “Titans” — especially for its 3D conversion — though the pic has earned $492 million worldwide.
Tull, clearly, has been able to tap into what excites moviegoers, especially younger males who buy a majority of the tickets at the megaplex.
He’s happy seeing himself as just one of the guys. He loves reading graphic novels, visiting comicbook stores and playing videogames. He counts “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Godzilla” and “The Goonies” as some of his favorite movies. His top pics are the three “Lord of the Rings” films, which he watches every Christmas. He’s such a fan of “LOTR” that he is said to own some 50 statues, figures and other high-end items created by Sideshow Collectibles tied to the films and books.
Not surprisingly, the wish list of filmmakers he wants to work with includes Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron.
Tull will get to pursue his own fan interest in San Diego this week as a producer of the documentary “Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope,” which he’s making independently with filmmakers Morgan Spurlock and Joss Whedon, comicbook icon Stan Lee and Ain’t It Cool News chief Harry Knowles. The movie will examine the influence of the annual confab on pop culture over its 40-year run. (This year’s event runs July 22-25.)
Tull similarly self-produced and funded the rock docu “It Might Get Loud,” because he’s a self-proclaimed “guitar geek” and the pic gave him a chance to meet Jimmy Page — just as his love of football encouraged him to become a minority partner in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Officially, though, Tull will be at Comic-Con to promote his latest projects, which include the actioner “Sucker Punch,” described by Snyder as “Alice in Wonderland” with guns.
The rest of Legendary’s upcoming slate is filled with films for the fanboy faithful, including:
• a reboot of “Godzilla” that aims to be closer to the Japanese original than Roland Emmerich’s version for Sony was;
• a third Batman installment, with Nolan closing in to start helming for a release in July 2012, and another reboot of Superman in “The Man of Steel”;
• an adaptation of the anime classic “Akira,” to be directed by the Hughes Bros.;
• “The Spook’s Apprentice,” based on the adult fantasy novel, and “Jack the Giant Killer,” based on the Jack and the Beanstalk tale;
• a pic version of the vidgames “World of Warcraft” (with Sam Raimi attached to helm), “Mass Effect” and “Gears of War.”
Legendary also will produce and self-finance “Warcraft,” a sequel to “300,” an adaptation of Warren Ellis’ graphic novel “Gravel,” and “Paradise Lost,” based on John Milton’s epic poem, with WB distribbing.
Tull and his team are quick to underscore that getting access to the prized Batman and Superman properties and having the chance to make many of Legendary’s other films would never have happened without Warner’s support.
The studio owns the rights to the superheroes and has been careful who it hands DC’s top characters to — especially now that “Dark Knight” has proven that comicbook movies don’t have to appeal to just the Comic-Con contingent, but can be treated as serious films, even Oscar contenders. It also ponies up considerable coin to market the movies.
“Warner Bros. has, and does, set the bar in this regard, and our respective creative mandates are in sync so that our partnership is an easy and productive one. We both want to help create escapist, transportive experiences that allow filmgoers to access worlds that aren’t that easily accessed,” Jashni says.
WB, for its part, needs a well-heeled partner like Legendary to help gets its high-profile tentpoles greenlit.
Tull also understands the need of studios to focus on the bigger picture — that a film has to appeal to an international audience (the success of “Clash” overseas has set the stage for a sequel) or spin off a line of videogames, toys and other mercha
ndise to generate new revenue streams.
As a collector of “Lord of the Rings” figures, Tull knows that those ancillary elements keep fans happy and coming back for more. They want to experience the films across all platforms.
And that’s led to Tull’s interest in expanding his reach beyond movies. Now that WB has been aggressively building its internal videogames biz by buying successful gamemakers — and alongside the fact that Tull is a gamer, himself — Legendary is also looking to produce its own interactive titles, starting with “The Lost Patrol,” based on a thriller about World War II soldiers who battle supernatural beasties, which is gearing up to lense.
Legendary recruited former Electronic Arts and Activision exec Kathy Vrabeck last year to launch its games division.
At the end of the day, however, Tull knows that what counts — creatively and financially — is what’s on the bigscreen. And that will always center on what his inner fanboy wants to see.