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A Long-Running Game of 'D&D'

Director Courtney Solomon survived years of dark magic to get his film made.

December 06, 2000|TODD MARTENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With Zeman's backing, Solomon created Sweetpea Entertainment, named after Elvis Presley's mother's dog because Solomon promised his mother the company would have something to do with Elvis. After two years, Solomon had put together a proposal that TSR took seriously, and he settled in L.A. By the time he was 24, he was shopping a script written by Carroll Cartwright and Topper Lilien that was drawing rave reviews from top directors.

"There was 60% of Hollywood that loved the script, and 40% that hated it, but what everybody didn't like was the genre," said Solomon, noting that fantasy usually spells failure. Although "The Princess Bride" was a modest success, studios had been burned by films like "Willow," "Krull" and "Dragonheart."

Though deals between Coppola and Harlin fizzled, it was the one with Cameron that particularly stung Solomon. The "Terminator" director was looking to produce a film before "Titanic," and Solomon had all but sold the project, which had grown to a $100-million-budgeted feature, when 20th Century Fox, where Cameron is based, and TSR failed to negotiate a merchandising deal that pleased the studio.

"That was one of the points where I wanted to give up," said Solomon. "It wasn't [Cameron's] fault. There were a lot of tough times. I don't want to get into the details of those times."

But after more than five years of living with this fantasy world, Solomon wasn't about to abandon his dream, even though it would soon cause a long-term relationship with his girlfriend to come to an end.

"I just didn't pay enough attention to her because I was so deeply involved with this," said Solomon. "It's like a child. It's like you're giving birth, with a long labor period. When you're the underdog, you've got to put in double time all the time."

Joel Silver's Entrance Helps to Open Doors

Then "Matrix" producer Joel Silver entered the picture. Silver, however, envisioned "Dungeons & Dragons" as a syndicated television series, which caused one problem: A television deal wasn't in Solomon's contract with TSR, and TSR was in the process of being sold to Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), the company behind the Magic card game. (WOTC has since been sold to Hasbro.)

"The lady who ran TSR gave me her word that Wizards was going to extend our rights to include TV, so we set the whole thing up," said Solomon. "I made the deal with Silver. He was making the deal with the networks, and the new company came in and said, 'The hell with you. We're not giving you those rights.' This is after I put all my work in, my reputation, and had done tons of work with a heavyweight like Silver."

The prospects of getting a film underway were bleak. Solomon's contract with TSR required him to start filming before a certain date or lose the rights, and Solomon knew WOTC wanted control of the property. "They figured I had the rights too long and couldn't get the movie done," Solomon said.

So with only $3.5 million raised, Solomon went overseas to shoot a spiteful direct-to-video film. "It was not going to be a good movie," said Solomon, "but we were going to make our money back." This brought litigation from WOTC, which argued that Solomon wasn't shooting a real movie. Yet Silver was impressed with some initial scenes filmed by Solomon and agreed to stay on as an executive producer, making the search for investors much easier. It was Silver who persuaded Oscar-winning actor Irons to play the role of the villainous wizard.

Solomon was then able to raise $30 million, scrapping the direct-to-video idea and quelling WOTC's fears of ruining the trademark. Due to the budget, many scenes had to be cut, but Solomon believes he made a film that looks like a $60-million-to-$70-million picture. Still, he's looking forward to working on the DVD, which he hopes will contain 20 additional minutes. Solomon would like to fill in some plot points, adding scenes the budget didn't allow.

Warner Bros. had a first-look option, but Mark Ordesky, head of acquisitions at New Line, had been eyeing the project for years. Warner Bros. let its first look expire to pass "D&D" off to its sister company, which will also be releasing the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Solomon is refusing to pick a new project until he sees "D&D" through its theatrical release. After dedicating his entire 20s to "Dungeons & Dragons," he isn't about to abandon his first-born in its final weeks. "All along the way there was the chance I would not be able to do this," said Solomon. "I had the chance to make smaller movies, but I didn't want to. I wanted 'D&D' to be my first movie. I had it set in my head this would be my first movie."

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