Hollywood not spending

BURBANK, California –
Joel Silver stands on the Warner Brothers lot and points to the remnants of a
house where he filmed parts of four “Lethal Weapon” movies. “We blasted a
toilet out of that window,” he says, smiling proudly. “Over there, we drove a
car straight into the living room.”

Ah, the glory days.

Behind Silver, the
flamboyant producer of some of the biggest action hits of the last 30 years, is
the modest set for one of his current films, an R-rated comedy with no stars,
almost no budget and – for now – no title. Not that Silver was ready to call
the production small. “It’s a little movie, but it’s a big little movie,” he
says.

And therein lies
Silver’s challenge: How does a larger-than-life, free-spending producer fit
into a movie business that has been tightening up – and cutting some of its
more grandiose characters down to size?

In the new Hollywood,
stars count for less, whether in front of the camera or behind it. Financial
firepower and technological wizardry matter more. And a generation of producers
– whose principal assets were their industry connections and a remarkable
degree of personal force – are having to adapt.

Silver, 58, has been
a dominant studio moviemaker for over three decades, delivering blockbuster
franchises like “Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard” and “The Matrix.” The 59 movies he
has produced have generated almost $10 billion in ticket sales, adjusting for
inflation. The money he has made for Warner alone has won him lavish treatment
from the studio – not just in compensation, but also in perks. To make him
happy, Warner once went so far as to send movie props to his Brentwood mansion
for his son’s birthday party.

Warner, at least in
years past, has ignored Silver at its own peril. Six years ago, Jeff Robinov,
then a top production executive at the studio, was hospitalized after a
motorcycle accident. As he recovered, Robinov heard that Silver was
exaggerating the severity of the accident – and telling people that Robinov was
unable to function.

When Robinov asked
Silver why he was doing this, the producer said it was because the Warner
executive hadn’t been returning his calls promptly.

Despite such antics,
producers like Silver used to be able to count on one studio or another to
support them in near perpetuity. So what if they fell on hard times – as Silver
has, recently delivering a string of flops like “Speed Racer” (one of the
biggest money-losers in Warner’s 87-year history), “Ninja Assassin,” “Whiteout”
and the aptly titled “The Losers.”

Studios no longer
take such losses lightly. Bleeding from plummeting DVD sales and higher
marketing costs, they’ve started reducing producer deals. Warner alone has cut
the number of producers it carries by 20 percent over the last two years and
has said more reductions are on the way. The producers Warner now favours are
mostly young and inexpensive or come with financial backing of their own from
outsiders, like Legendary Pictures, which teamed up with Warner to make “The
Dark Knight.”

Warner has also been
building up the production companies of directors and actors like Zack Snyder,
Ben Affleck and Todd Phillips, all of whom now challenge Silver in a pecking
order that changed when old images of Hollywood producers – who survived by
wit, will and the occasional outrageous moment – began fading to black.

A particularly
difficult point for both Warner and Silver is the cost of his production deals.
In a frothier time, the lucrative arrangements struck by Silver allowed him to
get a cut of the revenue from his films.

Warner is also
required to distribute films from Silver’s production company Dark Castle,
which self-finances horror and other low-budget movies with $240 million in
private funding.

Against backdrops
like this, Hollywood studios are nudging entrenched producers away from prized
but risky projects, if only to avoid paying them millions of dollars in
participation fees while the studio loses money.

For instance, Silver
was entrusted for years with developing “Wonder Woman” into a big-budget movie.
Warner recently took the superheroine away from him, to exert more control and
to allow other, less expensive producers to take a shot at it.

So even though
Hollywood has always been the fabled land of comebacks and second acts – and
Silver recently found success with “Sherlock Holmes” – the megaproducer also
knows that his head may be perilously close to the chopping block. His deal
with Warner, which provides for a staff of about 20, expires in December 2011;
negotiations for a new contract haven’t started.

Silver, burly and
bearded, has been parodied in several movies, most recently by Tom Cruise in
“Tropic Thunder,” but he is far from the only megawatt producer under pressure
or needing to figure out a new way forward.

Even Jerry
Bruckheimer, producer of such fare as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, is
struggling to move beyond four high-profile disappointments in a row, including
“G-Force” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both of which required Disney to
take quarterly write-downs.

Silver has over 25
films in active development, including a splashy adaptation of “Logan’s Run,” a
1976 movie about a futuristic society in which humans are terminated when they
turn 30. Another project involves the comic book character Sgt. Rock.

“The core of the
movie business remains intact,” says Silver. “And it’s not descending in scope.
Studios want movies that are bigger than ever.” Perhaps, but studios also want
small – something that Silver is trying to address with Project X, that unnamed
teenage comedy in production on the Warner back lot.

Silver monitors a
rehearsal of a fight sequence in the film. An actress, Kirby Bliss Blanton,
runs over to him and gives him a hug.

“I love you!” she
beams.

Silver is startled by
the hug, but it barely registers because he is too focused on other things,
like a tricky scene coming up involving nudity.

“There aren’t a lot
of guys like me left,” Silver says. “But I’m a war horse. I’ve been through it
all. And you know something about war horses? Through the sleet, through the
snow – they just keep going.”

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