It’s one of the oldest truisms in Hollywood. Pact with talent for an overhead deal and they’ll make their cash cows somewhere else. Universal carries Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s deluxe Imagine deal for years through “The Missing,” “Inside Deep Throat” and “Cinderella Man” and where do they make “The Da Vinci Code” and its sequels? Sony. (Since the recession, that deal has been reduced.)
In 2006, Sumner Redstone got so mad at gross player Tom Cruise for making more money on “Mission: Impossible III” than Paramount that he kicked him off the lot. Soon after, MGM, in a desperate bid to look good in front of investors, handed Cruise and then producing partner Paula Wagner the keys to the United Artists kingdom. In two years they produced two Cruise vehicles: box-office disaster “Lions for Lambs” and widely panned “Valkyrie,” which returned some profits overseas.
In fact, the studios have been shedding movie star deals, mainly because they don’t tend to pay off.
So why did Paramount lure Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions after a 10-year-stint at Warner Bros. —which is experiencing a surge in fortunes due to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”? One answer is that slimmed down Paramount is being packaged for financial suitors as Viacom looks to sell off a minority stake. Best Actor Oscar winner DiCaprio is a sparkling, high-profile win for the studio, joining other name players with first-look deals: Michael Bay, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and Jerry Bruckheimer. (Unlike an exclusive deal, first look means the studio has the right of first refusal on a project developed there. If they pass, the project can go somewhere else.)
DiCaprio is tight with studio chief Brad Grey, who is tight with Martin Scorsese. When Grey was head of management company Brillstein-Grey Entertainment and had formed Plan B, he worked with DiCaprio and Scorsese on Oscar-winner “The Departed” at Warner Bros. Scorsese has made another four films with DiCaprio (“Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” and at Paramount, where Scorsese has an overall feature deal, “Shutter Island” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”).
But Appian Way is more than a jewel in Paramount’s crown. Like Brad Pitt’s well-regarded Plan B, which Grey brought over from Warner Bros. in 2005, Appian Way is a serious production company that produces more than vehicles for its star. (Plan B has yielded not only “World War Z,” but Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave,” released by Fox Searchlight, “Selma” and “The Big Short.”) Appian Way was one of the producers on “The Revenant,” and one upcoming production is Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night,” which will be released by Warners in 2017.
UPDATE: Check out the Wall Street Journal expose on the money behind Red Granite and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Another outstanding question: will we ever see that $70-million DiCaprio/Pitt/De Niro Scorsese short “The Audition?” Maybe at December’s Macau International Film Festival…