U weighs ‘Dark Tower’ options

Movie trilogy and interlocking TV series could be shopped

Universal’s “Dark Tower” movie trilogy and interlocking TV series, seen as a hugely ambitious project from the start, may wind up being too big for the studio’s appetite.

Sources tell Variety that in the past few days, the project, based on Stephen King’s sweeping seven-book-and-counting series, has run into budgetary complications that have caused Universal execs to rethink original plans. Insiders expect U brass to meet in coming days to weigh various possibilities, including another studio coming in to partner with Universal or take over the project entirely.

To be clear: Sources tell Variety that as of Thursday, Universal is moving ahead as if the project is going forward. The studio had no comment.

Ron Howard unveiled plans in September to adapt “The Dark Tower” for three films — at least the first of which he plans to direct — bridged by a pair of TV series. Universal soon came on as a distributor, given Imagine’s production deal with the studio; NBC (or an affiliated cable net) was expected carry the TV component.

Javier Bardem’s deal to play the lead role of Roland Deschain is nearly closed, while Howard is still eyeing thesps for other roles. Howard and Brian Grazer are producing through Imagine, while Akiva Goldsman is set to write the script.

With a project of this size and scope, it wouldn’t be unusual for any studio to weigh its risk-sharing options — or pulling out — at this stage of development. And “Dark Tower” isn’t the only major project that Universal has recently reconsidered. “At the Mountains of Madness,” which had Guillermo del Toro set to direct and Tom Cruise circling to star, was scrapped on the brink of lensing after U calculated that it would struggle to make money with its $150 million budget and R rating.

That project went into hibernation in March, not long after the newly minted NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke was in Universal City for meetings with NBC and Universal Pictures brass.

King’s “Dark Tower” epic has been long pursued for screen adaptation, but the series’ length and scope — rooted in a post-Apocalyptic realm resembling the Old West as well a parallel modern-day world — has been a tough nut to crack for scripting and production planning. Before Imagine announced its adaptation plans, J.J. Abrams and “Lost” co-creator exec producer Damon Lindelof had optioned rights from King for $19 (a key number in the “Tower” universe). But they weren’t able to find a take on the material that satisfied their ambitions.

Nonetheless, the Imagine team and U felt confident they had a workable vision. In announcing their plans for “Dark Tower,” companies set a May 17, 2013 target date for release of the first film.