With a five-year, nine-figure exclusive production deal, Universal Pictures is banking on Jordan Peele’s proven ability to excite critics and bring audiences to theaters. Like everyone else, the studio recognizes that brand names — whether they’re superheroes or cutting-edge filmmakers — are crucial investments in the franchise era.
The arms race among streamers has weaponized megadeals, turning names like Ryan Murphy (Netflix), Oprah (Apple), and J.J. Abrams (Warner Media) into arrows for their respective quivers. For traditional studios, however, it’s a model that’s largely fallen out of favor. Studios have decades of hard-won experience when it comes to overpaying producers with lavish offices and guaranteed release slots.
However, the market does make one exception, and it’s the same model demonstrated by streaming: Work with talent, and pay for the brand. The new five-year contract with Monkeypaw is an upgrade of the first-look deal he made in 2017 following the enormous financial and critical success of his directorial debut, “Get Out.” He followed that with “Us,” which cemented Peele as a master mixologist of horror, comedy, and social commentary.
By signing Peele to this rare, rich, and exclusive deal, Universal essentially coronated Peele as a brand — one with a built-in fanbase and name that signals exactly what the audience can expect. In a superhero world, familiarity is the gold standard.
Peele’s brand is based on smart, critically acclaimed storytelling that’s committed to diversity as it tops the box office. He’s fast, he’s prolific, and he works in the zone that studio executives love — familiar genres, with a twist. And he does it all for a price.
“Get Out,” which gave Peele his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, made $255 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. The next year, the worldwide gross for “Us” was nearly identical, on a $20 million budget.
This has been a good year for Universal, which saw more number-one openings this year than any studio — even Disney. However, unlike Disney, it doesn’t have Marvel or Pixar, much less Disney’s own IP. It has the aging “Fast and the Furious” and “Jurassic Park” brands, and its Illumination and DreamWorks Animation arms can only go so far. It needs Peele, and others who can deliver at his level.
Universal is developing Peele’s next two films as director, writer, and producer, while Peele and Monkeypaw will continue producing original films from other directors, as it did with Spike Lee’s 2018 Oscar-winning “BlacKkKlansman.” Monkeypaw is in production on “Candyman,” written by Peele and producing partner Win Rosenfeld and directed by Nia DaCosta (“Little Woods”).
Unlike Peele’s first three features, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse is not a producer on “Candyman;” nor, according to a representative, is Monkeypaw currently developing anything with Blumhouse. That speaks volumes to how Universal views the company’s success: Jordan Peele is his own Kevin Feige.
In March, Peele told IndieWire how he struck the balance between creative freedom and financial realities when developing “Us.”
“I was like, look, I want to be able to take my filmmaking up a notch, so I want to be able to make a bigger budget movie,” he said. “But I don’t want to make such a big budget movie that all of a sudden we’ve crossed this line where the risk means you’re going to be fucking with my story. That was the key for me. Otherwise, I may not have had my freedom. As a filmmaker, I also thrive with a certain restriction. I didn’t want to overreach with the budget and all of a sudden have a studio being responsible on me.”
Peele got his story, Universal got its profits. And now they have a deal that promises more of the same.