Even though Sony was in the bidding to the end, DreamWorks had a card no other studio could play -- the Spielberg ace. The enthusiasm of Spielberg, long a fan of Jackson, allowed DreamWorks to see the deal as the beginning of a long-term relationship, not a risky one-off deal. It's no coincidence that just days after the "Bones" sale DreamWorks announced that Spielberg and Jackson were also collaborating on a series of movies based on the comic-strip hero Tintin. Snider also has a strong relationship with Jackson built when he made "King Kong" at Universal Pictures when she was studio head there.
Snider's track record is instructive, especially when it comes to making a bet on difficult material to maintain a relationship with a crowd-pleasing filmmaker.
In the 1990s, Tom Shadyac had three straight $100-million comedy hits at Universal. His next project, a dark drama called "Dragonfly," found only one taker -- Snider, who shared the cost with an indie financier but wholeheartedly backed the movie. When Shadyac made his next hit, "Bruce Almighty," it was for Snider and Universal.
Mann's project has had a bumpier path, in part because he hasn't cultivated such loyalty -- and is coming off "Miami Vice," a costly flop. Although Mann is much admired for his filmmaking, his pictures rarely make much money and almost always go over budget.
In Hollywood, there is a generation of executives who've endured Mann's intractable perfectionism. When Sony begged Mann to cut several expletives out of "Ali" so the film could get a PG-13 rating, he refused, going out with an R rating, a decision that arguably cost the studio millions in potential revenue.
The other big sticking point with the Logan script is its milieu. Though full of fascinating studio politics and action-packed scenes -- my favorite being a Sunset Strip shootout outside the Trocadero nightclub that involves both Bugsy Siegel and Judy Garland -- the story is full of familiar Hollywood characters who've been portrayed endlessly, in altered form, in films over the years. For all its popularity among filmmakers, the inside-Hollywood movie genre has a limited commercial reach.
At $120 million, even with DiCaprio, the deal was too rich, especially when people can get their Hollywood fix today via "Entourage" or "Extras." The only studio with real enthusiasm is New Line, which has a history of buying material nobody else wanted, most notably "LOTR," which was turned down all over town.
Still, the studio remains on the fence, especially after having run the numbers on recent DiCaprio dramas, using "The Aviator" as a high end, "Blood Diamond" as a low mark. If New Line buys, expect the budget to be comfortably under $100 million to allow for Mann's usual overages.
Of course, even if the film is never made, the script will still survive, passed along from admirer to admirer, the story only playing out in their imagination.
When the story's hero, a tough-guy studio fixer named Harry Slidell, meets with Louis B. Mayer, the studio boss -- who speaks the lingo of a crafty immigrant entrepreneur -- has deduced that Slidell is falling for the starlet he's been paid to investigate. "Actresses are like lightbulbs," he says. "... sooner or later they're gonna burn out on you. Your heart, give to someone else."
Studio chiefs don't talk that way about the talent anymore. These days they're much more worried about being seduced into buying a script that will win their heart but end up costing them their job.
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