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Studios Rethink Big-Budget Producers and Their Pricey Tentpoles–and Westerns

Studios Rethink Big-Budget Producers and Their Pricey Tentpoles--and Westerns

Blame Cowboys & Aliens.

When Disney ditched (or postponed) Gore Verbinski’s pricey $250 million Johnny Depp remake of The Lone Ranger, set to shoot in New Mexico in October, the studio wasn’t just applying the brakes to runaway costs. It was also just saying no to billion dollar producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He brought the studio four lucrative–but increasingly expensive–Pirates movies, among other hits like Crimson Tide, Armageddon, Enemy of the State, National Treasure and Remember the Titans. And he also delivered costly disappointments Prince of Persia, G-Force, Pearl Harbor, King Arthur and Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But he was applying Pirates-level costs to a period western. Bruckheimer and Verbinski will presumably reduce the scale of their ambition to a mere $200 million and get back to work.

Disney, whose transitional chairman Rich Ross has been empowered to keep the studio lean, mean and looking toward the digital future, had already shown the door to one-time golden director Bob Zemeckis’s ImageMovers Digital, which spent far more than it brought in on such performance capture projects as A Christmas Carol and the biggest flop of the year–and one of the biggest studio write-offs ever– atrociously reviewed, disastrously titled creepy family film Mars Needs Moms, which cost $200 million to make and market and grossed a total $39 million worldwide (a respectable opening weekend number). It was deemed by TV’s At the Movies as one of the five worst films of the year.

Nonetheless Universal, wowed by the lure of an A-list director and motion capture technology (R & R already paid for by Disney, which shut down ImageMovers’ Marin County facility in 2010), scooped up the company for a rich two-year first-look production deal.

This should only serve to alert Imagine Entertainment to its tenuous position there. There was a time when uber-producers like Bruckheimer, who has been cock of the walk at Disney for 17 years now, topped Premiere Magazine’s power-list producers, along with Universal’s 500-pound gorillas, Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who have lately delivered their Da Vinci Code hits to Sony while the costly duds add up at their home studio, from Howard’s Cinderella Man and success d’estime Frost/Nixon to raunchy comedy The Dilemma, starring unfunny Vince Vaughn. Imagine also produced Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and the western Cowboys & Aliens which is probably partially responsible for Lone Ranger hitting the skids at Disney.

Studios can’t afford deals like Imagine’s, which cost Universal more than $8 million a year in overhead and development costs; Imagine collects 7.5 percent of the gross on its films. Gone are the heady days of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Nutty Professor and Howard’s Oscar-winning Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Now, the industry wonders where Imagine will take a greatly reduced overhead deal, and Grazer and Howard are scrambling for financing for another ditched ambitious western, Stephen King epic The Dark Tower, which might properly belong at HBO, one of the few places left willing to spend millions on risky projects (or westerns) aimed at adults.

Bruckheimer, Zemeckis and Imagine are in many ways products of a studio system that while still in the business of franchises, easy-sell brands and tentpoles, also must rein in costs when powerful producers chase projects that may not be commercial moneymakers. The trick to staying at the top of the Hollywood food chain as a producer is proving your worth over and over again, which in turn means you get the top scripts and movie stars. One-time Warner Bros. go-to action producer Joel Silver has also trimmed his sails of late.

At Paramount, while Lorenzo di Bonaventura is still delivering robust large-scale actioners to the studio, from the Transformers series to G.I. Joe, he made his other hit Salt at Sony, where he is rumored to be heading, as he sets up a fund to finance lower-budget action films. And class-act Scott Rudin still displays his ability to keep moving. He moved his deal from Paramount (where he set up the Coens’ True Grit) to Disney/Miramax (No COuntry for Old Men) and is now happily ensconsed at Sony, whose chairman Amy Pascal knows how to take advantage of his skills. Rudin delivered for Sony on David Fincher’s The Social Network, and has coming up Brad Pitt-starrer Moneyball (another movie that went through wrenching changes before it got made, including dumping Steven Soderbergh) and Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, not to mention Angelina Jolie vehicle Cleopatra. Rudin doesn’t have a huge deal or overhead, doesn’t insist on overspending during production to make a movie better–although he does run marketing budgets ragged. For him it’s about getting the material he wants to make, so he does ask for a sizable discretionary spending fund, free of studio constraints.

Rudin has adapted to changing times that demand that often, less is more.

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