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WB ends Joel Silver era with $30 million payout

'Matrix,' 'Lethal Weapon' franchises part of deal

As it ends a 25-year relationship with Joel Silver, Warner Bros. will pay the prolific producer around $30 million for the rights to more than 30 of his films produced under the Silver Pictures banner — an unusual agreement that prevents him from collecting any future coin from hit franchises like “The Matrix,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Sherlock Holmes.”

The buyout is surprising given Silver’s stature and list of hits. But it also represents the latest example of Hollywood shifting under the feet of the industry’s veteran filmmakers.

As studios focus more on their bottom line, Silver joins the rest of the biz forced to give up rich overhead deals and adapt to a more corporate way of making movies.

Giving up the rights to a large library of films that pumped out a healthy flow of ancillary dollars will hurt. But Silver didn’t have a choice: Over the years, Warner Bros. loaned him advances on films based on a percentage of the box office the pics were expected to earn. Few producers in town, if any, received such an advance.

While Silver has several notable hits to his credit, some — like “Speed Racer” — didn’t perform, costing the studio millions. With the two now parting ways by the end of the year, Warners wants its money back.

The studio came up with the $30 million figure through a complicated formula that considers the future earnings of the Silver Pictures library and after the outstanding debt — which was not disclosed — is subtracted. That includes hits like “Swordfish,” “Book of Eli,” “Demolition Man” and “Executive Decision,” but also pricey misfires. Analysts say most of the titles already have generated as much as they can from various distribution platforms.

Exit deal is similar to Charlie Sheen’s separation from Warner Bros., where the company’s TV studio paid the “Two and a Half Men” star a lump sum against future profit participation as part of that acrimonious split. Silver and Warner Bros. also had a reportedly caustic separation, and some knowledgeable observers say the up-front payment could be as much about severing ties expediently, given that the Silver Pictures library could potentially earn more than $30 million over time.

That library does not include the “Die Hard” franchise or “Predator,” produced at 20th Century Fox, or “48 Hrs,” at Paramount. It also doesn’t include 14 pics produced through Silver’s genre label Dark Castle, which operates on its own and through its own financing. Warners will continue to release Dark Castle’s pics, including the upcoming Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Bullet to the Head,” helmed by Walter Hill, and revenge drama “Motor City.”

Shingle recently released horror pic “The Apparition,” which was given a low-profile push as WB and Silver finalized their divorce. Other credits include “Unknown,” “Gothika,” “Thirteen Ghosts,” “Orphan” and “House on Haunted Hill.” Altogether, the films have earned nearly $900 million worldwide.

Over the years, Warner Bros. paid for Silver’s staff of 20 employees, including a personal driver and projectionist for his home theater, and housed him in two bungalows on the lot, once occupied by Richard Donner.

Without a rich overhead studio deal, Silver must now get creative in how he finances his films. Not that he’s in dire straits.

Silver is locking down a five-year deal with Universal in which the studio will distrib a minimum of 12 pics produced through a new banner inside Silver Pictures Entertainment. As part of the pact, Silver must find financing for those films himself, although U has agreed to pay for P&A.

Silver’s new agreement with Universal, expected to close in the coming weeks, still gives him the freedom to make movies at other studios and pursue a new first-look deal or produce one-off pictures. He’s still expected to collect around $7 million per pic as part of his producer fee.

In looking to raise financing, Silver will find that money isn’t free-flowing as it used to be: A changing investor pool is demanding more results than usual, and is less willing to make risky bets. Distribution for future films should help.

Still Emmett/Furla Films is financing Dark Castle’s “Motor City.” And StudioCanal has stepped forward to pay for Silver’s first project at Universal, the Liam Neeson vehicle “Non-Stop.” The distrib will handle the pic’s international territories, while U will broker all of the airline thriller’s domestic deals. Silver’s future slate is expected to filled with mid-range budgeted actioners like “Non-Stop” and Neeson hit “Unknown” that have appealed to investors looking for pics that are easy to sell to foreign audiences.

For now, Silver is focused on renovating new office space for Silver Pictures inside the former Venice Post Office that he purchased recently.

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