How Tull started making movies with around $600 million and grew Legendary into a $3 billion company over the past decade
Hollywood can be a beast for anyone looking to establish a business.
Movies and TV shows frequently fail. Financing can dry up instantly. And the outsized egos and conflicting agendas of insecure executives can drive anyone mad. So the long odds overcome by an outsider like Thomas Tull in transforming his love for genre fare, comicbooks, toys and videogames into a brand for fanboys are somewhat astonishing.
Tull, who started his career running Laundromats in his hometown of Binghamton, New York, spent eight years building Legendary Entertainment on the back of co-financing deals for Warner Bros.’ superhero films featuring Batman and Superman, adaptations of graphic novels like “300″ and “Watchmen,” remakes of “Clash of the Titans,” and R-rated comedy franchise “The Hangover.” Lately, he has been digging deeper into his own wallet to take more control of the movies that bear his company’s name.
Last year, Legendary bankrolled 75% of the nearly $200 million cost of “Pacific Rim,” director Guillermo del Toro’s monsters vs. robots mashup, which played well internationally, earning $309 million — but wasn’t the giant hit the company had banked on Stateside, where it managed just over $100 million. (Del Toro’s next pic with Legendary will be “Crimson Peak,” due out Oct. 16, 2015.)
Now comes Legendary’s biggest test to date, a remake of “Godzilla,” which stomps into theaters May 16. The film is significant, since it marks Legendary’s swan song from Warner Bros. following a largely successful partnership that ended bitterly. (The relationship would continue on certain sequels, and Legendary does have a small stake in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” out this fall).
In January, Legendary kicked off a five-year deal with Comcast-owned NBCUniversal that’s already seen Tull put his money behind more monster movies, including next summer’s “Jurassic World” and this year’s “Dracula Untold,” giving him new franchises on which to stamp Legendary’s logo. The pact also affords Tull more autonomy and opportunities to expand his company’s imprint across other businesses. It now has access to Comcast’s vast portfolio of broadcast and cable channels and broadband services, as well as theme parks around the world. “We’re very excited about the theme parks; there are certainly a lot of conversations around that,” says Tull, who already had a relationship with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke through mutual friends. “The kind of stuff that we make obviously would fit and we both recognize that.”
Legendary also fits Universal’s needs — not only as a means to launch new franchises, but to gain a foothold in China.
After a sluggish start, it appears that Legendary East, with offices in Beijing, is finally ready this year to shoot its first film there, fantasy epic “The Great Wall,” to be directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero”). The country’s largest film distrib, China Film Co., made an eight-figure investment in Legendary’s “Seventh Son” and “Warcraft” in March, after the strong performance in that country of “Pacific Rim.”
“We’re committed there,” Tull tells Variety. “It’s somewhere that’s big in our future. This has been a six-year process to put this together. It was important that we earn the right to be part of that community,” especially as box office in the region continues to dramatically increase. “If you have enough trust built up, then it makes things a heck of a lot easier” to do business in China, Tull adds.
Tull’s big vision for Legendary is to become not just another Marvel, but like Steven Spielberg’s Amblin. “I remember as a kid when I saw the Amblin logo come up it meant something to me,” he says. “You’re going to go on an adventure. We have haven’t reached the same levels that I’m satisfied with, but it’s something we think about.”
Tull has grown Legendary rapidly. The company’s TV division is ramping up under former Warner Bros. Television chief Bruce Rosenblum, and is spending big bucks to attract top talent like Ben Stiller and his Red Hour shingle.
Rosenblum recently lured film producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and former DreamWorks TV president Dan McDermott into moving their TV shingle from ABC Studios to Legendary, creating genre fare that fits well with Tull’s fanboy taste. Eventually, Di Bonaventura would likely also produce movies with Legendary.
“A TV division has always been in the plans, but we needed the right team in place,” Tull said. The first scripted series will be produced this year.
Last year, Tull acquired Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Industries, a popular online destination for fanboys that Legendary uses to promote its projects, and recently it launched an internal analytics group with the help of its tech investors that will use big data to promote and distribute content — and perhaps eventually determine what gets greenlit. “To not use those tools would be a mistake,” Tull says.
The 43-year-old exec’s first order of business, however, is to use all his know-how to bring “Godzilla” successfully to life on the bigscreen, a feat that would go a long way toward taming his critics and proving that Legendary can stand tall on its own alongside accomplished rivals such as Marvel Entertainment.
“If you decide that all of a sudden you’re a studio or producer who has got to get in on the gravy train of this fanboy thing, that’s problematic. The fans can certainly sniff that out.” — Thomas Tull
Tull is certainly taking a sizable risk with the film about the iconic Japanese monster. Legendary put up three-quarters of the $160 million budget, and he personally chose 38-year-old Gareth Edwards to direct the tentpole, even though the helmer had made only one movie before — the $500,000-budgeted “Monsters,” for which he produced the visual effects on his home computer and wrote the script.
Tull and Edwards have a lot to prove to audiences soured by the last “Godzilla” remake: Roland Emmerich’s 1998 take on the atomic fire-breathing lizard for Sony Pictures. That film scared up just $379 million worldwide and left Sony without a hoped-for new franchise, and toy and promotional partners like Taco Bell with piles of unsold merchandise.
“I’ve been a Godzilla fan literally my whole life,” Tull says. “He’s a huge global icon for a reason.” Echoing a complaint many had about Emmerich’s version, he adds, “I’m always puzzled as a fan when you take things so far it’s unrecognizable.”
Legendary president Jon Jashni says that the scrutiny engendered by the 1998 movie means “we had to make triply sure we got it right. Godzilla had to look like Godzilla. Period.”
It took some convincing to get Japanese production and distribution outfit Toho, which owns the rights to the monster, to hand over custody to Tull and his team. What encouraged Toho is the relationship Legendary has with gamemakers Blizzard Entertainment, Electronic Arts and Mattel, with which it is developing films based on, respectively, the “World of Warcraft” and “Mass Effect” vidgames and the “Hot Wheels” toy line.
“There’s a leap of faith inherent in any IP holder when choosing to explore a new medium,” Jashni says. “All you have to help you convince them to trust you is the way you’ve treated others. It’s a small town. The people you’re trying to work with are friends with other people you’ve worked with. Your reputation precedes you.”
That reputation had been starting to look a little shaky for Tull at Warner Bros.
The partnership started off well enough when the Burbank studio, like the rest of the Hollywood majors, began seeking new financing sources after once-reliable slate deals with banks, pension and hedge funds were drying up. Tull was able to offer almost $600 million in co-financing coin that he raised on Wall Street, which thrust him into the movie biz with Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” in 2005.
Warner execs came to realize, however, that with Tull they weren’t dealing with a silent partner. Not only was he involved in all aspects of a film’s development, but also in its marketing, which positioned him as a baby-faced bully who took credit for tentpoles he didn’t own. WB has since turned to Village Roadshow and a $450 million fund from Brett Ratner’s RatPac-Dune Entertainment.
The rumor mongering doesn’t affect Tull. “It would be wrong to say that Hollywood has a patent on that,” he says. “If things are intensified here it’s because it’s a fun job, it’s highly public and if you have one of those jobs that allows you to say yes and make stuff, that’s pretty intoxicating.
“It is truly a privilege to do this, to make movies,” Tull adds. “But it takes an army of people. You’re going to have pushes and pulls and different points of view and different agendas. Those are the challenges of marshalling all of these forces.
“I’m sometimes surprised any movie gets made.” — Thomas Tull
Making a relationship with a studio work, he adds, takes “understanding, with great clarity, as to what their goals and challenges are. You constantly have to ask the question, ‘How can you be a good partner? How can you be invaluable?’ It’s not easy to run a studio. There are more distractions and types of entertainment today than there have ever been. You have to be cognizant of the pressures the executives at the studios are under. There are only a handful of those jobs and they’re highly sought after. Your failings are written about and repeated all over the place for people to opine about. Empathizing with that is important.”
When you do that, you have the opportunity to meet “some incredible and generous people who do a lot of things behind the scenes that are great and worthy of looking up to,” Tull says, citing Tom Sherak, the former studio executive and president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences who passed away in January as one such individual.
Cultivating relationships is what’s helped Tull build a fanbase with billionaire backers like Google’s Eric Schmidt; Accel Partners’ Jim Breyer, who previously funded Marvel Entertainment until Disney bought it in 2009; and Peter Thiel, the first outside investor in Facebook and co-founder of PayPal; along with former Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook; TV producer Tom Werner, who co-founded Carsey Werner and is chair of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club; and Procter & Gamble chairman and CEO Alan George “A.G.” Lafley. Breyer is the only investor on Legendary’s board.
These men have sparked to the Legendary founder’s brutal honesty.
“We have a culture of candor here at Legendary,” Tull says. “If the baby is ugly, we have to say the baby is ugly.” — Thomas Tull
The company’s backers also praise Tull’s strong talent ties, his entrepreneurial spirit, embrace of digital as a growth opportunity and ability to experiment when needed. “He is approachable, has executive presence and delivers results quarter after quarter, year after year,” Breyer says. “He understands that several of his businesses are going through tremendous transitions, and that gets him excited rather than defensive. He’s comfortable with uncertainty. He’s willing to experiment in parts of the business and invest appropriately and be very comfortable with the fact it might take time but it will be one of the most definable characteristic of Legendary in five to ten years.”
Tull has another fan in Del Toro. “Working with Thomas, you get the dialogue with the decision maker right away,” he says. “Both he and Jon Jashni support your process with their ability to deliver the big decision right on the spot.”
“Creatively, you feel safe and able to make the movie you have in your mind. I also love the fact that Thomas is up to date on all the genre movies, watching them day and date, not as a homework but as a fan. Thomas loves films and is still as enamored with the form as any filmmaker you can name.” — Guillermo del Toro
Tull’s evolution as a savvy media businessman can be seen in the executive suites of Legendary’s new headquarters on the top two floors of a 15-story glass-and-steel skyscraper in Burbank that towers over Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Studios.
Given the kinds of films Legendary makes, one might expect a playful setting packed with comicbook memorabilia — you’ll have to go several floors down to DC Entertainment’s colorful supherhero-filled headquarters for that. Instead, the offices look more like a boutique hotel, with a masculine palette of soft grays, beiges and dark browns, leather and chrome-trimmed furniture, and wood floors. Inside a conference room, there are more than 20 framed photos of famed baseball players. In a small dining area, known as the Steelers Room, there are two signed helmets of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team in which Tull has a minority stake. Behind his desk is a massive painting of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, the subject of Legendary’s 2013 biopic “42.”
When asked about the lack of action figures, comicbooks and toys Tull is known for collecting, he blames his staff. “They wouldn’t let me bring them” from his old offices, he jokes, before noting, “Guys on Wall Street don’t find that amusing when they come to visit.” He did allow himself a little whimsy; his office bathroom has an original framed cell from “King Kong” — and a poster of 1954’s original “Godzilla.”
At least one visitor was impressed by Tull’s fanboy past: his “Godzilla” director.
“As a kid, his favorite things were the Pittsburgh Steelers and comicbooks. Now he owns the Steelers and makes Batman movies.” — Gareth Edwards on Thomas Tull
That instantly connected Edwards and Tull when they first met three years ago, after Edwards’ “Monsters” registered on Hollywood’s radar. Following the meeting, the director took a photo of the Legendary building — at the time, on the Warner Bros. lot. “It’s something I never do, but I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to make a movie with these guys.’ ”
Four months later, Edwards’ intuition proved prophetic: He got a call from Tull asking if he would be interested in steering the biggest movie of his career, and one of the highest-profile films this summer — and one of the most high-profile films for any filmmaker, “Godzilla.”
“This was one of those very rare instance where we talked to only one guy,” Tull says. “He had a great mix of reverence for the material and wasn’t intimidated by it but excited. As you can image when you’re taking someone who’s made a movie that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to this, there are a lot of conversations. And frankly, a lot of push back — not in a nefarious way, but hey, this is a big risk. It was our nickel to make the mistake because we own so much of the movie.”
“The guy has really got some balls and doesn’t second guess himself,” Edwards says. “I don’t think there’s anyone else that would have let me do this film. You hear all these horror stories about first-time studio directors getting a tentpole, and it all goes wrong for them. I was nervous that could happen to me.”
Jashni appreciates Edwards’ composure.
“He was entitled to be a lot more rattled than he was. He never lost his cool. He was made to make movies like this.” — Jon Jashni on Edwards
Of course neither Edwards nor Legendary wants to be embarrassed at the box office. But positive buzz generated from “Godzilla’s” eye-catching marketing campaign and from screenings indicates the pair needn’t be worried. Early tracking estimates the film will debut to roughly $75 million domestically. It’s opening day-and-date in most major markets, except for China, where it bows June 13, and Japan (with Toho distributing), July 25.
Legendary isn’t hiding the towering beast in its promo blitz — a lesson learned after Emmerich insisted Sony keep Godzilla hidden until the 1998 film’s release. That strategy backfired.
“He is the star of the show,” says Emily Castel, Legendary’s chief marketing officer and the founder of Five33, the boutique agency Tull bought last year. Castel’s mission was to reintroduce Godzilla as a symbol of power and fury that harks back to the 1954 original.
“We had to take this iconic character from a dormant franchise associated with B-movies and make it contemporary and fresh again,” Castel says. (Over the past 60 years, the creature has been featured in 29 films.) “A lot of people had turned their back on Godzilla,” she adds. “For so long, they hadn’t been given a reason why they should be fans. We had to treat him with the respect he warrants.”
To do that, Legendary has spent the past two years promoting “Godzilla,” first through a chilling sequence that served as test footage screened at San Diego Comic-Con, in 2012; and a $1 million “Godzilla Encounter,” at the fanboy fest last summer, that showcased the character’s legacy over the years through rare collectibles and the costume worn in Toho’s first film. “Godzilla’s” teaser trailer relies on a haunting skydiving sequence where the viewer joins soldiers parachuting over San Francisco while Godzilla is fighting another giant beast, destroying the city around them.
“You’re feeling the fear because it’s shown to you from an audience viewpoint,” Castel says. “That’s so much more powerful than setting back and watching a spectacle of a monster arriving.
“We very much went back to the source,” Castel says of the marketing strategy that in large part focuses on the source material. “This is a survival movie; it’s about vulnerability in the face of a natural disaster,” she says. “For us, it was not about overselling a monster. This is about the effect of Godzilla’s arrival rather than the cause of his arrival. We took what Gareth has done and rooted the story into something that’s deeply personal — a family torn apart by tragedy. The key for us was a less is more campaign. For us, it was not about overselling a monster.”
Promotional support from Snickers and carmaker Fiat amp up the creature’s pop culture connection with consumers.
Still, getting the look of the new Godzilla right was a big challenge.
Toho, which ultimately signed off on the final design, “was concerned we stay true to their Godzilla,” Edwards says, and provided a list of things that had to be included in the final look, like the number of toes, for example. That was fine, he adds, “because we had a longer list of our own.”
For Edwards, the new Godzilla had needed to have a strong profile.
“The best characters, the most iconic characters, have really strong silhouettes. Godzilla is one of the best silhouettes there is.” — Gareth Edwards
The creature onscreen scales to 355 feet tall — or roughly 30 stories high. “He’s the tallest Godzilla there’s been, but that’s because skyscrapers and cities have gotten taller over the years,” Edwards explains. His size makes him big enough to see in a city, but small enough, at times, to hide.
The most difficult stylistic hurdle was perfecting the face. The original Godzilla has a more curved visage than the latest one, which is more dog- or bearlike, with a squarer, more angular design. “If you have everything curved, it can be cutesy and lean more toward a Muppet,” Edwards says. “We tried to make him look more aggressive.”
Edwards couldn’t be happier with the final look. “You have a lot of buyer’s remorse when you’re a director,” he says. “I never look at him and have anything I want to change.” That includes his roar, which Tull also worked closely with Edwards to design.
If anyone still doubts the power of Comic-Con, just ask Edwards. The day after his birthday, in 2012, Legendary screened a 1 1/2-minutes and a half of test footage for 6,000 people packed into the city’s convention center who erupted in approval and flooded social media platforms with praise.
“I wasn’t prepared for it at all,” says Edwards, who stood backstage with a hangover from the birthday celebration the night before, listening to the roaring reaction. “There was so much cheering I welled up. It was the same feeling of someone who just did a penalty kick in the World Cup. It might be the highlight of my life.” There was also another reason. “That presentation at Comic-Con solidified it for everybody. It was like someone shot a firing pistol.”
If Edwards felt overwhelmed on set, it never showed. The director’s actors, including Bryan Cranston, call him “remarkably calm,” adding that the director’s clear vision and willingness to work with actors and not rigidly stick to the script won him over.
Edwards’ film provides not only spectacle but also an integrated plot, penned by Max Borenstein, that’s grounded in reality and centers around a family whose characters — played by Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen — actually suffer from the destruction seen onscreen. Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe also co-star.
There are times when it’s hard not to think of Steven Spielberg’s earlier work while watching Edwards’ well-crafted and awe-inspiring sequences, which were shot in Japan, Vancouver, and Hawaii in order to destroy parts of the Philippines, Tokyo, San Francisco, Honolulu and Las Vegas.
“Gareth’s way in was less intellectual but plausible and participatory,” Jashni says. “If you’re a fan you’re going to want things like this. Even if you can’t join Godzilla in the fight, you want to feel like you’re in the car and not out of it. Other filmmakers might come from it in an anthropological perspective or the science of it. It’s still grounded in the science but it wasn’t at the expense of the participatory or the adventure that comes along with the ride.”
The budget to make a summer tentpole may be different than that of a low-budget independent film, but Edwards says the goal is still the same: “You’re trying to tell a two-hour story that captivates people in the cinema. You’re using the same part of your brain. Just being spontaneous on set and getting a great shot at the spur of the moment now needs to be done six months in advance.”
One of many standout sequences in Edwards’ “Godzilla” is the first time the audience gets to see one of its big creatures. Set inside Honolulu’s airport, travelers watch as a monster lays waste to its monorail, runway and jets explode. If this were a real occurrence the rational reaction would be to run for the exits, but passengers are glued to the massive windows in awe. “I’m a sucker for airports,” Edwards says. “There’s something about those giant windows, it feels like an aquarium. There’s something symbolic about an airport as a gateway between worlds. It felt strangely appropriate to have the creatures arrive there for the first time.”
It’s also one of the earliest pre-visualized sequences that landed him the director’s job.
“The idea that the film was going to be made felt absurd,” Edwards says. “I just had fun and treated it like a short film. ‘This might be all you get,’ I told myself.
Yet Edwards didn’t want any one scene to stand out. “When one section of the film was stronger than another I would put my attention on the other section and try to make it better,” he says. “Every ten minutes there’s another moment that comes up where I say that’s my favorite.”
For a spectacle-filled tentpole like “Godzilla,” the shot count is low. “I’m a fan of holding onto things and having a thought,” Edwards says. “One of the characters that’s most important is the audience,” Edwards says. “You have to give time for the audience to have a reaction or opinion or thought about something.”
The secret to making a massive movie like Godzilla is balance. “Something that’s loud is only loud because of the quiet,” Edwards adds. “When you’re making something look big you have to have something smaller. The obvious go to thing is the people.” Edwards also isn’t a fan of bombarding viewers with too many effects. “It’s very easy for things to plateau and give you CGI fatigue,” he says. “You have to find ways to change gears.”
Aside from any potential peril “Godzilla” may encounter at the box office, Legendary faces another challenge — in the courtroom. Producers Dan Lin (fresh off blockbuster “The Lego Movie”), Roy Lee and Doug Davidson are suing for $25,000 in development fees, $1.3 million in compensation and 3% of “Godzilla’s” first-dollar gross based on a longform oral agreement they signed with Legendary for early work on the project, which they argue was instrumental in getting Toho’s approval. A trial date has been set for March 17 in Los Angeles. All parties declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The future of Legendary — which analysts value at around $3 billion — hardly rests solely on Godzilla’s shoulders.
In addition to its videogame- and toy-based adaptations, its pipeline is primed with an adaptation of the Marcus Sakey book “Brilliance,” which Joe Roth will produce; and the thriller “Cyber,” with Michael Mann directing and Chris Hemsworth starring. Its next release is “As Above, So Below,” a low-budget horror-thriller set in Paris’ catacombs that bows Aug. 15 via Universal.
At Universal, Legendary has more room to grow, especially with access to Comcast’s vast portfolio of broadcast and cable channels, broadband services, as well as theme parks around the world.
“All I’ve known over the last 10 years is Warner Bros.,” Tull says. “They’re the bluest of the blue chips.” — Thomas Tull
But Tull’s already encouraged by his dealings with Universal. “It’s been candid and that’s all you can ask for in this business.”
Adds Jashni: “We’re in the experience business. We’ve got the shot we need to do what we need to do to earn our place and take it all the way. The greater sin always lies in not capitalizing on the opportunity rather than not getting the opportunity at all.” Success will now require living up to “all the promises we’ve made with our content creators and who we want to attract in the future.” To put it another way, it takes time. “It requires maturity and patience, and tempering excitement,” Jashni says. “That’s been a challenge. Just because you can conceive ideas doesn’t mean you can make it real tomorrow.”
Tull isn’t wasting any time getting up and running at Universal. The two already have paired on fantasy actioner “Seventh Son” and “Dracula Untold,” out later this year, as well as “Crimson Peak,” which bows in 2015. As part of its agreement to invest about $275 million a year in Universal’s films and its own slate through 2017, Legendary is also in talks to board the studio’s other monster movies, including “Van Helsing” and “The Mummy.” Universal will back Legendary’s films with at least $175 million, in return.
“We, like everybody else, need financing for our slate,” says Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. “We like the movie business and we like being in the business. Because of the volatility of the business, it’s nice to have someone manage that volatility.” At the same time, Shell sees an opportunity to grow Universal’s bottomline through Legendary’s own slate. “They’ve proven their brand is big fanboy movies. To be able to invest in some of them is a huge opportunity.”
“(Tull) is an incredibly smart and analytical guy. The flipside is, he makes movies that he wants to see and is passionate about. This is a tough business for anyone to do well, but he has a nice combination of both and that’s why we want to do business with him.” — Jeff Shell
Reflecting on the past decade, Tull says he can’t help but look fondly on those years. “We’re fortunate that we had an amazing run at Warner Bros.,” he says. But, he adds, “The plan from the beginning was always to develop and produce our own stuff. Going into other areas, whether it’s television, digital, theme parks or comicbooks — that kind of morphed over time.”
Kind of like Godzilla.
Photos by Maciek Jasik