‘Dark Tower’ needs a champion

Imagine seeking brave partner on Stephen King adaptation

If Imagine Entertainment wants to get “The Dark Tower” made, it needs a Mark Ordesky.

When Peter Jackson was looking to set up his ambitious “Lord of the Rings” trilogy at a studio, every major passed — but then Ordesky championed the prospects of the films to New Line chief Bob Shaye. The risk paid off, with the first film’s B.O. funding the sequels; the trilogy cost an estimated $285 million to produce but grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide.

Imagine toppers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard need that kind of inhouse cheerleader at a studio or film financier for their plan — unprecedented in its ambition for three films and two TV series — to get Stephen King’s tale of a roving gunslinger trying to save a post-apocalyptic world up on the big- and smallscreens.

Even if Imagine finds its champion, that person’s challenge will be enormous: Securing capital in today’s economic climate is different than it was in the late 1990s ahead of “LOTR,” and Hollywood’s tolerance for risk is significantly lower.

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While Imagine has never publicly disclosed what it would spend on “Dark Tower,” sources say the first pic was planned as a tentpole costing $200 million-plus. Assuming a pair of $150 million sequels and likely another $100 million for a pair of connective TV series runs, Imagine would have to convince prospective partners to spend more than half a billion dollars on production costs alone. Capital for production is the hardest kind of funding to raise from investors in the current climate.

As Variety reported Monday, that was too rich for Warner Bros., the second studio to pass after Universal put “Dark Tower” into turnaround in July 2011. With no traction at the majors, “Dark Tower” is currently in the same position Jackson’s “Rings” trilogy once occupied: without a studio partner.

Few companies outside the studios have the capacity to fund such an ambitious project — and now Imagine is pinning its hopes on Media Rights Capital. It would be a risky bet for the company emboldened by its recent score with the comedy “Ted,” which has grossed more than $350 million worldwide, with more territories still to go.

MRC has never made a project at “Dark Tower’s” price point, focusing on pics in the mid-range, along the lines of its upcoming “Elysium.” (By comparison, it took the combined firepower of New Line, Warner Bros. and MGM to pony up around $500 million for the first two movies in Jackson’s upcoming “Hobbit” series before agreeing to make a third, which will cost another $125 million-$150 million.)

Most execs aren’t willing to shell out that kind of coin for anything, let alone a seven-book series that, even for King fans, is considered a cult property. And screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s latest draft for the film’s first installment hasn’t been burning up Hollywood, even with Russell Crowe showing interest in playing the lead.

One potential avenue for MRC and Imagine to pursue would require Imagine to penny-pinch, significantly lowering the budget to better fit MRC’s business model of financing properties in order to flip them to the studios. MRC does have an advantage in that lacking a corporate parent, it’s more detached from shareholder and exec pressure.

Company works by committing to fund a fully packaged film, then seeking bidders for distribution rights. Those rights need to sell for more than the production costs, so there’s a built-in profit before the movie wraps.

MRC is also known for being generous with backend talent participation, an enticement that could help lower the upfront costs. But talent reps question whether it will be worth committing thesps to an overall deal that could tie them up for several years.

MRC boasts an inside track with the majors: The company is known for its well-hewn studio relationships and currently has a distribution pact with Universal. It also linked up with Warner Bros. in 2007 to unspool three of its films — “Shorts,” “The Invention of Lying” and “The Box.”

While Hollywood searches for the next big franchise, it’s still hard for investors to commit to a multilayered property like “Dark Tower.”

If Imagine wants a backer that will take everything on no matter what, a reduction in price — or a scaling down of the project to a TV- or movies-only size — may be even more important. But finding a TV partner to commit to such a long-term venture also won’t be easy. When “Dark Tower” was set up at U, the TV series was envisioned as going to NBC, but there wasn’t much enthusiasm for the project in part because it wasn’t developed directly by Peacock execs.

All of these challenges indicate how much “The Dark Tower” needs a champion.

(Justin Kroll, Dave McNary and Stuart Levine contributed to this story.)