After years of relentlessly slashing costs, Hollywood’s major studios are slowly building back the number of producing deals — though at a level still far below the heyday of such pacts at the turn of century.
Significant names that have come onboard among the 19 new deals in the past six months include Sacha Baron Cohen, Bradley Cooper, Simon Cowell, Tom Hardy, Kevin James, Hutch Parker, Taylor Swift, Paul Walker and David Yates.
Variety’s Facts on Pacts compilation, based on info supplied by the six major studios on their producing deals, now stands at 158, or 19% above the low point two years ago when the figure bottomed out at 133. It’s up three from six months ago, although the numbers pale in comparison to the 2000 report, when an all-time high 292 deals were listed. (Variety has been tallying these deals for more than a decade, and counts only the six, to make comparisons consistent. However, the chart on page 8 also includes five other film companies that have a significant number of term deals. Totals from New Line, a WB subsid, and DreamWorks, which has an output deal through Disney, are included in the tallies of their Big Six partners.)
Sony added the most deals over the past six months, going from 26 to 31 (including seven new pacts), and Warner Bros. remained the largest, with 36 (including the three ongoing New Line deals). Disney was the only major to cut its roster, going from 18 to 17.
Among the names whose deals have expired in the past six months are Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Prods.; Gianni Nunnari’s Hollywood Gang; Guillermo Del Toro’s Necropia; Owen Wilson; and a pair of DreamWorks pacts for Alex Kurtzman-Roberto Orci’s K.O. Paper Products, and Walter Parkes-Laurie MacDonald. The most notable studio switch during that time came with Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Prods. going from Fox to Paramount. (And at U, Scott Stuber changed the name of his banner from Stuber Pictures to Bluegrass Films.)
Even as more term deals are being made, producers with pacts are counting their blessings. Says Benderspink principal JC Spink, who with partner Chris Bender has had a deal in place with the same studio since 1999: “We never take our first-look deal for granted, and are very thankful to New Line for having faith in us.” The shingle recently wrapped “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” for New Line; its other pics for the company include “A History of Violence,” “Red Eye,” “The Butterfly Effect,” “Leap Year” and “Monster in Law.”
Jason Blum, who’s on his fourth term deal with Universal, following pacts at Miramax, HBO and Paramount, says that being in alliance with a studio is invaluable even when budgets are on the small side. “The microbudget business is only half a business without a studio partner,” he says.
Warner-based Donald De Line, whose resume includes stints in the executive suites at Disney and Paramount, asserts that a first-look gives him much deeper relationships with executives. “This partnership makes the process more collaborative than transactional, which helps increase the odds of getting movies made in a constricting marketplace,” he says.
Sony signed Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street last year to a deal in the wake of “The Social Network,” with the shingle now shooting “Captain Phillips.”
“It’s helpful to have your overhead covered, but what’s really important is that you have a home where you know what the studio is looking for,” Brunetti says.
Mark Gordon, who signed a deal last year with Disney, notes that the studios continue to be tough on deal points and development fees at a time when they are making fewer films and focusing on franchises. Nevertheless, he says, the majors clearly recognize that they need producers to generate most of their material.
Even those who don’t have a studio deal typically adapt, says Gordon, who’s also co-president of the Producers Guild of America. “Things haven’t changed extensively,” he says. “Film producers can’t rely only on studios, and so producers are becoming much more skilled at independent financing.”
Sometimes a sidestep into a different medium can be the entree to a term deal. Gordon (who also works in TV with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds”) notes that feature producers are becoming more likely to expand their purview into the smallscreen, pointing to such notables as Lorenzo Di Bonaventura (who partnered last summer with Dan McDermott to launch a TV production company based at ABC Studios with a three-year overall deal) and “Twilight” producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, who are exec-producing ABC’s “Revenge.”
However they go down, the deals being made today aren’t as rich as the ones of a decade ago.
In the early 2000s, typical pacts usually included overhead costs for an office and staff, often well over $1 million annually; an annual discretionary fund of about $750,000 for purchasing material, usually with a $250,000 per-project cap; and a guaranteed fee of around $1 million as an advance on producer’s fees.
But studios have ratcheted back significantly, and even the largest and most-established producers, such as Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment at Universal, are not immune. In January, Imagine laid off five employees, including top production exec Jeremy Steckler, just two days after Imagine reupped its deal with Universal through 2016 — though the formerly exclusive pact was changed to a first-look deal.
Yet while discretionary funds, overhead and guarantees have been slashed, studios will continue to look to major stars to keep the big projects coming in — most notably Will Smith’s Overbrook and George Clooney’s Smokehouse at Sony, Brad Pitt’s Plan B at Paramount, Ben Stiller’s Red Hour at Fox and Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso at Warners.
The trend is probably most pronounced at Warner Bros., where Eastwood has produced or directed a staggering three dozen films. Warners continues to seek out new talent: It signed Cooper and Hardy a month ago to producing deals in the wake of Cooper’s participation in a third “Hangover” and Hardy being set to play the key villain in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Those signings bolstered what was already by far the biggest roster of producer-actors. Warner’s list includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Brand, Zac Efron, Robert Downey Jr., Morgan Freeman, Steve Carell, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
Warners’ slate of deals also includes a first-look pact, through its New Line division, with Jennifer Gibgot and sibling Adam Shankman, who have spent a decade in studio deals — nine years at Disney before the past year at New Line, where they’ve produced “Rock of Ages” and are working on “The Nutcracker” and “Mean Moms.” Gibgot says the first-look deal for their shingle, Offspring, makes her job easier, thanks what she calls a “verbal shorthand.”
“In a perfect world, when you have something like ‘Rock of Ages,’ one project is going to flow into more projects,” Gibgot notes. “So you can spend your time and energy on each film rather than worrying about where the next project is coming from.”