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Studios bid top dollar for Jackson's latest film

May 02, 2007|Lorenza Munoz and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

Dark adult dramas are highly risky bets, but four major studios are clamoring to pay a premium for Peter Jackson's next movie, "The Lovely Bones."

Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures and DreamWorks SKG have each put a bid on the table to finance Jackson's costly screen adaptation of Alice Sebold's 2004 best-seller about the aftermath of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl who narrates the story from heaven.

Sony was the first to bid Monday, according to a person involved in the negotiations. By late Tuesday, 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios, both of which had expressed interest, had dropped out over cost concerns.

Jackson's deal proposal stipulates that a studio must guarantee a production budget of $65 million and set aside $10 million in the event of cost overruns. That doesn't include Jackson's directing and producing fees, which could bring the production price tag to an eye-popping $90 million.

In the bids, each studio also had to include a marketing budget detailing how it would promote the movie worldwide. The cost of marketing this kind of film in North America alone would be at least $40 million, and launching an Oscar campaign would cost an additional $10 million to $15 million.

"It's insanely expensive," said one top executive who passed on the project, estimating that a studio would have to spend some $150 million to make and promote a movie that could be commercially challenged.

"I couldn't justify the numbers," said the executive, who asked for anonymity because of the secrecy of the discussions.

Equally important to Jackson is that the studios present details on when the film would be released in theaters and what other movies on that studio's slate would compete with it.

The script was sent out with a CD of 17 period songs from the 1970s that Jackson plans to use in the film, including tunes by such artists as Van Morrison, Jefferson Airplane, and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The script is annotated with cues for when each song should be played.

Jackson plans to begin production in October in Pennsylvania, where Sebold's story is set. Special effects would be shot in Jackson's New Zealand studio.

The big question is the commercial viability of an intense adult drama like "The Lovely Bones." With the rare exception of movies such as DreamWorks' 1999 sleeper hit, "American Beauty," which won a best-picture Oscar and grossed $353 million worldwide, darker themed dramas typically struggle.

"When your target audience is decidedly older and sophisticated, it does not necessarily translate into big box office," said Paul Dergarabedian, head of the tracking firm Media by Numbers. "What 18-year-old kid wants to run out and see a very dark intense drama? They want to see 'Spider-Man,' 'Transformers' and 'X-Men.' "

But most movie companies are anxious to be in business with Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of "The Lord of the Rings" franchise. When the "Lovely Bones" bid packages landed on executives' desks Monday, the frenzy began.

"The fact that Peter Jackson's next film was made available on the open market created a bit of chaos," said Ken Kamins, Jackson's manager, noting that a deal could close as early as today.

With "The Lovely Bones," Jackson is returning to his roots. His acclaimed 1994 film, "Heavenly Creatures," about two friends who murder one of their mothers, caught Hollywood's attention, even though it grossed a mere $3 million at the domestic box office.

Jackson optioned the rights to "The Lovely Bones" three years ago from Britain's FilmFour, which is a producing partner on the project and has British TV distribution rights. Jackson wrote the script with his wife, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens.

Before Jackson's involvement, director and DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg had been eyeing the project.

Like Spielberg, Jackson is one of the handful of top directors who command at least $20 million a movie and a large cut of the profit.

It's unclear whether Jackson would lower his fee for "The Lovely Bones" because it is a much smaller-scale film than "The Lord of the Rings" and "King Kong."

What is clear is that Jackson wants complete creative control -- a demand most in Hollywood are willing to meet.

Jackson has had his share of bad experiences with the studio system. Last year, Universal unexpectedly pulled the plug on plans for "Halo," a big-budget movie based on the video game, in partnership with 20th Century Fox. Jackson, who had spent nearly a year finessing the script and served as an executive producer, was furious.

With New Line Cinema, Jackson is embroiled in a legal battle over royalties from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Because of that feud, New Line founder Robert Shaye has refused to let Jackson direct "The Hobbit," the J.R.R. Tolkien novel that sets the stage for "Lord of the Rings." But MGM, which shares the rights to "The Hobbit" with New Line, wants Jackson to direct it. New Line was not sent the script for "The Lovely Bones."

Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.

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