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When the `yes' becomes a `no'

Film projects, some with major talent attached, are now getting their plugs pulled by budget-skittish studios.

July 09, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

THE real magic of Hollywood is not the knee-buckling resonance of a perfect screen kiss or the ability to conjure an army of Orcs from the plains of New Zealand. The real magic of Hollywood, as any agent, screenwriter, director, actor, producer or studio executive will tell you, is that movies get made at all. Especially now.

Some years back, a commitment from an A-lister, those actors or directors whose track records proved they could deliver a big opening weekend at the box office, usually guaranteed a big-budget project would get a green light. Then the formula changed -- it often took getting a star to commit to the project and then trying to get them to cut their fee. But now, apparently, even that is not enough, as filmmakers on a variety of projects are beginning to learn.

Whether the rupture of a film project is officially pegged as a disagreement over the script, the director or the star's deal, the negotiations have simply gotten tougher, and the likelihood of compromise slimmer once the budget tops the $100-million watermark -- even though a few million dollars might be all that separates the sides.

Filmmakers have been complaining for years that they can't get studio support for midlevel movies -- films with a budget between $25 million and $80 million. Although they have created indie divisions for small-budget films, the studios' emphasis has turned to high-concept films, an increasing number of which have budgets that quickly top $100 million -- and a handful more that double that figure. With that much money at stake, it's not surprising that studios have gotten more jittery.

"The number of movies that cost more than $100 million is increasing," says producer and former Twentieth Century Fox studio head Bill Mechanic. "And once you cross the $100-million mark, it's just very hard to get your money out. Some make money, but a lot don't. And that can be a pretty big don't."

In recent weeks, "Believe It or Not!," a Jim Carrey project whose budget was estimated to be in the $150-million range, was shut down by Paramount. Although there were disagreements over the script -- Carrey and director Tim Burton wanted to take the film in a new direction -- the decision was driven by Paramount execs who didn't want to pay production costs while the script changes were made. They pushed the project back a year, and while all involved have said they remain committed, a year is a very long time.

Two years ago, Universal famously shelled out $20 million to Denzel Washington to meet "pay-or-play" contracts (meaning an actor gets his fee whether the movie is made or not) after the studio pulled the plug on Antoine Fucqua's "American Gangster" because the budget was creeping past $100 million.

"Used Guys," a high-concept, big-budget comedy that was to star Carrey and Ben Stiller, provides one of the best recent case studies in how a $100-million-plus film can fall apart. A few months ago Fox, in partnership with Sony, pulled the plug on the project.

Yanked just weeks before shooting was to begin, the "Used Guys" collapse caused not so much shock as dismay within the industry. This was a film that had already cleared all the hurdles -- it had three big-time moneymakers attached; everyone was happy with the script; Fox and Sony are in good health financially and, more important, they were prepared to break the $100-million barrier, despite it being a comedy.

"It just didn't make any sense" to halt production, said an industry insider not directly associated with the project.

From where Fox sat, it made perfect sense. Yes, they were prepared to go over $100 million, but originally the budget had been closer to $106 million -- the trinity of Carrey, Stiller and director Jay Roach doesn't come cheap, though they took pay cuts to work together. (Still, according to those familiar with the deal, their combined salaries made up more than half the budget.) Then the schedule was pushed back when Stiller's work on another Fox movie went into overtime. The budget crept up to $110 million as Roach and his co-producers, Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld, realized that the movie's setting -- a female-dominated future world -- added special-effects expenses that cost more than originially anticipated.

With $6 million already sunk into sets, Fox asked Roach to commit to a budget of $112 million. For a variety of reasons, he was not prepared to do so, nor was he willing to ask either Stiller or Carrey to further cut their deals. In May, figuring that the only way the studio would make any money on the film was if "Used Guys" became one of the top-grossing comedies in history, Fox decided to pass.

In the weeks after the decision was made, Roach, who directed the "Austin Powers" and "Meet the Parents" franchises, expressed great surprise; although "Used Guys" would have been his first $100-million-plus movie, he felt it had the potential to turn a profit.

Others in the industry were more surprised at how the director handled the negotiations.

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