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Joel Silver: End of an Era as Studios Pull Back from Deluxe Producer Deals

Joel Silver: End of an Era as Studios Pull Back from Deluxe Producer Deals

How are the mighty fallen. After 25 years on the lot, Warner Bros. has unceremoniously kicked producer Joel Silver, of “Matrix” and “Lethal Weapon” fame, to the curb.

This smacks of when Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone axed Tom Cruise after 14 years at Paramount, as the star threatened to take home more back-end cash on “Mission: Impossible II” than the studio. Or when Disney shut down Bob Zemeckis’s rich deal after “Mars Needs Moms” lost a fortune.

Both Silver and Zemeckis are finding new homes at Universal, but not on the same terms. Silver will have to find financing for his upcoming films just like everyone else. He’s fixing up a new office in Venice as Warners pays off the producer with $30 million, reports Variety, estimating the future worth of his WB projects (which do not include his indie-financed Dark Castle films) against the loans they advanced him over the years, so that the studio won’t have to continue paying him his share on the movies that he originated with them.

This is a sign of the times. Studios are recalibrating the worth of their on-lot producers. For Silver this is a new day because for decades he was at the top of the studio food chain. He specialized in wrangling big-budget actioners, often with macho stars and VFX elements. But he never had the kind of creative commercial savvy that Jerry Bruckheimer commanded over the years, turning out (with inevitable exceptions) surefire tentpoles such as “Armageddon,” “Con Air,” “National Treasure,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Crimson Tide,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Truth is, even Bruckheimer has had some slips of late at Disney, such as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Prince of Persia.” (It’s a good thing he’s so successful in television, as “The Lone Ranger” looms large in his future.)

And Silver never earned the kind of respect commanded by uber-producers Scott Rudin or Imagine’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, who have managed to more quietly renegotiate less lucrative studio deals at Sony and Universal, respectively. For 25 years Silver was the 500-pound gorilla on the Warners lot with a well-appointed corner bungalow, deluxe gross deal and perks like a projectionist and driver. But he was also not a popular fellow who played well in the sandbox, and ran into trouble with WB motion picture chief Jeff Robinov for criticizing the studio’s marketing on the latest “Sherlock Holmes” installment. (Yes it’s true: I had run-ins with Silver, when I was at Premiere.)

Just look at Silver’s credits. What did he bring to the party on “The Matrix” series or any of the films he produced for the Wachowskis? He has dined on the franchises he was lucky to be part of, from Richard Donner’s “Lethal Weapon” series to “Sherlock Holmes,” directed by “Rocknrolla” director Guy Ritchie and starring “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” star Robert Downey, Jr., whose wife Susan also produced the series.

But over time, with few exceptions, Silver’s films are recognizably of a piece. At the start of his post-NYU career, he worked for Lawrence Gordon on three terrific Walter Hill films: “The Warriors,” “Streets of Fire,” and “48 HRS.,” plus Hill’s less successful “Brewster’s Millions.” With Gordon, Silver also launched Fox’s mighty “Die Hard” and “Predator” series. On his own, Silver did strong action work with the relatively lean “Commando,” starring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, at Fox.

But at Warners, until Silver headed in the direction of low-budget genre fare with his horror label, his big-budget studio films represent the loud, overwrought, costly, cynical audience-pandering formulas that many have been decrying for years. Some of the films he made are laughably bad, from “Road House” and “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” to “Hudson Hawk” and “Richie Rich.” A critics’ darling he is not.

Other titles are just mind-numbing, among them “Action Jackson,” “Fair Game,” “Executive Decision,” “Demolition Man,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “Romeo Must Die,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “Swordfish,” “The Reaping,” “The Invasion” and “Whiteout.”  (I’ll give him “Ricochet,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Book of Eli.”)

Will the one-time uber-producer be able to change his stripes outside of the garden of paradise? We’ll soon see. 

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