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Company Town | The Biz

'Brockovich' Sales Leave Universal Only Half-Thrilled

March 21, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

Edgar Bronfman Jr. is surely kicking himself once again for thinking small on a movie that is destined to be a huge hit for his Universal Pictures.

This weekend, Steven Soderbergh's based-on-a-true-story drama "Erin Brockovich" topped the charts with a gross of more than $28 million. Starring Julia Roberts as a divorced mother of three who becomes an unexpected heroine, the film cost $51 million to make and is expected to be a home run with more than $150 million domestically and possibly as much or more overseas.

But Universal will see only half of those profits. To cut costs, the studio invited Sony's Columbia Pictures to partner on the film. The Universal brass has repeatedly explained how some 18 months ago, under pressure from parent Seagram Co. chief Bronfman to raise quick cash, the hit-starved studio was forced to sell off or share precious rights to a number of films, including "Erin Brockovich."

Partnering on movies to cut costs has become a way of life at most Hollywood studios, though forfeiting the upside can come at a great price.

The decision to sacrifice half the potential profit on a movie starring Julia Roberts--the biggest and highest-paid female star in the world--is just as perplexing as the one to sell off most foreign rights to the $11-million teen comedy "American Pie." Universal received less than $5 million for those rights, leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table when the film grossed more than $100 million overseas.

Universal says the fire sale of its prize movies is over. After suffering a two-year box-office slump, Universal recently rebounded with films such as "The Mummy" and "Notting Hill."

The good news for Bronfman is that if "Brockovich" turns out to be the worldwide hit everyone thinks it will be, both Universal and Columbia will win. The studios are splitting all the production and marketing costs and will share equally in the profits.

Roberts' films, including "Pretty Woman" and such recent hits as "The Runaway Bride," "Notting Hill" and "My Best Friend's Wedding," have collectively grossed more than $2 billion worldwide.

Her role in "Erin Brockovich" distinguished the 32-year-old Roberts--whom Forbes magazine just dubbed "the most powerful celebrity on the planet"--as the first woman to receive $20 million for a movie. She joins the boys' club of stars that includes Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford.

That's not to say Roberts hasn't had some flops, among them "I Love Trouble," "Mary Reilly" and "Dying Young." But, today, Roberts is as safe a bet as you could hope for.

Jersey Films, run by partners Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, produced the movie, pulling together the creative elements, including Roberts and Soderbergh. The idea for the movie originated with executive producer Carla Santos Shamberg, Michael Shamberg's wife and a development executive at Jersey.

Santos Shamberg learned of Brockovich's story five years ago from their mutual chiropractor, Pam Dumond--who is now trying to be a screenwriter and has hired Hollywood hotshot manager Warren Zide to represent her.

When Brockovich came to Shamberg's Santa Monica home to tell her story, Santos Shamberg recalls opening her door to a leggy, 5-foot, 10-inch woman in black spiked heels, a black leather miniskirt, a black leather vest and "big blond hair."

The movie stays true to Brockovich's real-life story: how a broke, uneducated, onetime beauty queen working in an entry-level job at a small law firm spearheaded a huge lawsuit against utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric. The utility was found to have contaminated the ground water in a small California town near Barstow, poisoning hundreds of local residents.

Brockovich and her boss, Ed Masry (played by Albert Finney), assembled a case that led to a $330-million settlement--the largest ever in a direct-action suit.

Santos Shamberg was riveted by Brockovich's story--but at first couldn't sell the idea to her own husband. Santos Shamberg then approached her husband's partner, Sher, "who got it," Shamberg said. The executives at Columbia, where Jersey was based at the time, "dragged their heels," Sher said. Ultimately, the studio passed on the project.

When Jersey's deal moved to Universal four years ago, the partners decided to fund the development of the project out of their own seven-figure discretionary fund. "Sometimes we can move faster if we just buy something ourselves," Sher said.

Susannah Grant ("Ever After") wrote the screenplay, which was slipped to Roberts' agent, Elaine Goldsmith Thomas at ICM. Three directors had "turned it down," recalled Santos Shamberg, but Roberts liked the script. Veteran screenwriter Richard Lagravenese was hired for an uncredited rewrite.

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