Studios cut production deals

Reflects the quickly shifting world of film finance

Facts on Pacts

Variety has been compiling the Facts on Pacts stats for more than a decade, based on info supplied by the six major studios. The tally now stands at 151, which again is good news and bad news: It’s 13% above the low point of 133 hit in post-recession 2009, but nearly 50% below the heyday of such pacts, when studios listed 292 deals at the turn of century.

The drop in production deals marks another change in the constantly shifting world of film finance. Hollywood studios used to be the center of the universe when it came to filmmaking. Now, alternative funding and international deals are the keys to the film production universe, and folks are hoping for a robust AFM (which runs Oct. 31-Nov. 7) after healthy Cannes and Toronto film fests.

Among producers losing their deals in the last six months, the most significant name is Joel Silver at Warner Bros. The end of that 25-year relationship included payment to the high-profile producer of around $30 million for rights to more than 30 of his films. It also underlined that studios are now more focused on their bottom lines and less on pricey overhead deals.

Others whose deals have expired include James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films at Sony, Jay Roach’s Everyman at Universal, Kennedy/Marshall at DreamWorks, Jennifer Lopez’s Nuyorican at Fox, Virgin Produced at Relativity and two more at WB: Basil Iwanyk’s Thunder Road and Josh Brolin’s Brolin Prods.

New deals include Jason Bateman’s Aggregate Films plus Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s K/O Paper Products at Universal; Steve Zaillian at Fox; Will Gluck and Tracey Edmonds at Sony; Roger Birnbaum at MGM; and a film deal at Warners for prolific TV producer Chuck Lorre.

There’s also a new co-financing deal at Warner Bros. — the studio’s third arrangement following its longstanding agreements with Legendary Entertainment and Village Roadshow. Mike Karz and William Bindley’s Gulfstream announced a two-year pact in August with an initial development fund from Korean 3D firm Redrover and a consortium of U.S. private equity funds.

Gulfstream plans to produce and co-finance two films per year, starting with “The Nut Job,” a $45 million animated feature directed by Peter Lepeniotis for Redrover and Toronto-based animation studio Toonbox Entertainment, which becomes a sister company to Gulfstream.

“Our goal is simple,” Karz notes, “Bill Bindley and I want to bring Warners the best material, and our development fund gives us the ability to see high-quality projects early. It is a win-win for both Gulfstream and Warners because we cut their development risk in half.”

No studio wound up with more deals than they had six months ago. Warner Bros. remained the largest, with 36 (including the three ongoing New Line deals), followed by Universal with 33 and Sony with 30.

U’s tally remained the same, while WB and Sony were down one apiece. Disney made the biggest cuts to its roster, going from 18 to 15.

Mark Gordon, who signed a deal last year with Disney and is president of the Producers Guild of America, notes that studios expect more from producers at a time when they are making fewer films and focusing on franchises.

“We’re dealing with a world in which the bar is very high for getting movies made,” Gordon says. “It used to be that you’d have a spec or a pitch and that would be enough. It’s gotten much more difficult. It’s much easier to get a project set up if you have a piece of the package put together.”

Gordon says producers have no alternative but to adjust. “You have to be better and faster,” he adds. “You have to be more clever every time out.”

With the majors focused mostly on tentpoles, producers who deliver mid-range-budget projects and still have studio pacts are counting their blessings. Benderspink principal Chris Bender, who with partner JC Spink has had a deal with New Line since 1999, says, “We never take our first-look deal for granted, and are very thankful to New Line for having faith in us. We feel fortunate to still be a part of the family as Toby (Emmerich), Richard (Brener) and Carolyn (Blackwood) have maintained the original tenacious and innovative New Line spirit, which makes for an inspired working environment.”

Benderspink has wrapped “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” for New Line and it’s in production on “We’re the Millers.”

Producers assert that the value of long-lasting deal can’t be fully quantified. Neal Moritz, who has been on the Sony lot with his Original Film for 15 years, says his familiarity with Sony execs Amy Pascal and Doug Belgrad is a huge plus.

“What it means is that we are able to take a long look at projects so the continuity has been tremendous for me,” he notes. “When a new regime comes in at a studio, they may not be as willing to continue spending on a project.”

Moritz says his track record and relationships with the Sony brass were key in persuading the studio to back “21 Jump Street,” which grossed $200 million worldwide.

“My passion is usually enough to persuade them,” he says. “The movie business has really changed so it makes sense to work closely together with a studio so you can figure out how to make the most of what you have.”

Sony signed one of its newer deals 18 months ago when it brought on Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street in the wake of the success of “The Social Network.” The shingle is now in post on “Captain Phillips.”

“It’s always good to have a home, where you know what the studio is looking for,” Brunetti says.

But nothing lasts forever in Hollywood, even for heavyweights like Silver, who after being axed by WB, negotiated a five-year deal with Universal in which the studio will distrib a minimum of 12 pics produced through a new banner under the Silver Pictures Entertainment umbrella — but as part of the pact, Silver must find financing for those films himself. What: Studio-based producer deals dip.

The takeaway: Indies hope to benefit as tentpole-driven majors shift focus to alternative financing and international deals.

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