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Studio's Budget Concerns Could Deliver Knockout Punch to 'Ali'

Movies: Columbia has put a halt to production, fearing director Michael Mann will not hold spending to $105 million.

October 17, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

Columbia Pictures' high-priority movie project starring box office heavyweight Will Smith as Muhammad Ali is on the ropes over big money squabbles. Several rounds into the fight, "Ali" is a bloody mess.

Getting the life story of the legendary boxing champ to the screen is pitting Sony's Columbia Pictures against the film's high-profile director Michael Mann. Last week, a frustrated studio pulled the plug on the film. Columbia then agreed to consider an eleventh-hour plea from Mann Monday afternoon, delaying a final decision on the film's future.

The problem, in short, is that the studio doesn't believe Mann will make "Ali" for an already agreed-upon $105 million.

Mann is angry that Columbia backed out of the film after hiring him in February for what he assumed would be a "go" movie. He met Monday with the studio's physical production head Gary Martin to try to salvage the project.

Flanked by his agent, Creative Artists Agency President Richard Lovett, line producer Alex Ho and producer Jon Peters, who originated the project at Columbia nine years ago, Mann presented Martin with a number of financial concessions to satisfy the studio's budget requirement.

In addition to cutting some expensive locations, Mann, Smith and Peters agreed to take substantial cuts in their upfront fees, sources said. In recent weeks, the three had already agreed to adjust their foreign profit participation when Columbia advised them it would take an international partner on the costly movie.

Columbia agreed to meet again with Mann and company today to continue discussions. The studio declined to comment.

Columbia Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal, for whom "Ali" has been a priority project since she joined the studio in 1996, was not at Monday's meeting. It was Pascal and her boss, Sony Pictures Entertainment chief John Calley, who made the decision to scrap the movie over budgetary concerns.

Though Mann had agreed to make the movie for $105 million, he failed to convince studio management that he could do so without going at least $10 million over budget, according to studio sources.

Columbia executives are worried that they will not be able to control Mann, who is known for being headstrong and obsessed with detail when shooting a movie. Although Mann went $3 million over budget on his last movie, "The Insider," his two previous productions--"Heat" and "The Last of the Mohicans"--busted their budgets.

Mann's critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated drama, "The Insider," starring Al Pacino, about tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, cost around $70 million and grossed under $30 million domestically, resulting in a huge loss for Disney.

"Ali" is no less risky a movie for Columbia.

Even being headlined by one of the hottest stars in the world, a movie biography costing $105 million is a huge gamble. "Raging Bull," Martin Scorsese's story of boxer Jake LaMotta's life, was a critically acclaimed commercial flop.

But everyone involved agrees that this movie, with Smith on the marquee, could be huge.

Smith is a superstar who had his own hit TV series "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and such blockbusters to his credit as "Bad Boys," "Men in Black" and "Independence Day." Even his embarrassing flop, "Wild Wild West," directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, proved his appeal by grossing more than $100 million at the domestic box office.

One of the reasons "Ali" is so expensive is that Smith is among the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, commanding $20 million a movie with an additional 20% of the studio's revenue after the first $100 million. Mann gets $6 million up front against a percentage of the studio's revenue. Peters also is guaranteed a share of the revenue. Columbia's potential for seeing big profit on a movie this expensive is slim.

Moderating those fees is a substantial concession Mann hopes will save his picture.

Columbia already had been trying to lay off a good portion of its financial risk on a foreign-rights partner. Serious discussions have been underway to sell the international rights to Initial Entertainment Group, which is helping to finance a number of high-profile movies, including Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz.

But according to Initial's Chairman Graham King, no deal has been struck.

"Sony needs to sort out their dealings with the film before they get a foreign partner," King said Monday. "They need to know if they're making the film." King said his last words to the studio late last week were, "You sort out your in-house problems and then we'll talk."

King added that he is a huge fan of Smith's, Mann's and Ali's and that Initial would still be interested in being a financier of the project at Columbia or another studio if the deal is structured right.

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