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Secret Origin: How 'Red' escaped Warner Bros. and ended up at Summit

If Summit’s new action movie, starring seasoned performers Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich, scores with audiences this weekend, Warners likely will be seeing “RED.”

That’s because the studio repeatedly passed on the project, which was developed from a DC Comics title.
Tracking suggests that “RED” will post a solid opening — in the low- to mid-$20 million range. The movie had its first test screening prior to Comic-Con, which it passed with flying colors.

And after the success of “The Expendables,” which has grossed $248 million worldwide, an action movie with a cast of older performers doesn’t look like quite as much as a long shot.

But even before its Friday opening, “RED” carries with it a singular distinction: It is the first movie based on a DC Comics title that was not made by DC sister company Warners. And now that Warners has made moves to envelop DC and exploit the film potential of DC’s library more aggressively by creating DC Entertainment, it’s likely to be the last one as well.

What makes it even more interesting is that at almost every stage of development, Summit and the producers invited Warners to get involved.

“RED” began life as a comic from writer Warren Ellis and artist Cully Hamner that was published in late 2003 by DC’s Wildstorm imprint, which folded last week. The comic, which was creator-owned, piqued the interest of Gregory Noveck, who had just been appointed by then-DC president Paul Levitz to act as DC’s man in Hollywood. (Noveck left the company two months ago.)

While working on trying to shepherd other titles — mainly from the publisher’s superhero line — to the screen, Noveck began talking to Warners’ on-the-lot producers and writers, trying to generate interest in “RED.” Some execs liked the three-issue comic, which told of a retired CIA agent who gets marked for termination, but they didn’t exactly see a big movie in it.

So Warners passed.

It was then that Ellis and Hamner exercised their right to extricate the property. That, of course, was easier said than done. Part of the process involved having all of Warner’s divisions, including TV, review the property’s potential before it could be given its get-out-of-jail card. It took years, but in 2008, thanks to Noveck’s persistence, “RED” was given the key to drive the project off the lot.

Mark Vahradian at Di Bonaventura Prods. had been aware of the comic and, along with the company’s David Ready, brought the project into the shingle. They reached out to writers Erich and Jon Hoeber, with whom Noveck had worked on a TV pilot that went nowhere at Silver Pictures, and began expanding the tale into one that encompassed the ideas of pitting older characters, considered past their prime, against younger ones. They introduced a colorful supporting cast, giving the project a more action-oriented “Ocean’s Eleven” feel.

The writers and producers spit-shined the heck out of a pitch and took it out around town — DreamWorks, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warners were all pitched — in May and June 2008.
Warners passed again.

The one company that made an offer was Summit, at that time an up-and-coming production company that was still five months away from releasing “Twilight.” Summit was particularly interested in having DC’s participation in order to use its logo and brand to help promote the movie.

At Summit, “RED” developed more momentum: The script came in, and the studio liked it. In spring 2009, Willis became attached, and director Robert Schwentke came aboard soon after.

At almost every step along the way, Summit showed the project to Warners, hoping that the bigger studio might come in as a partner because Summit was looking to mitigate financial risk. “RED” ultimately cost $58 million to produce (a number that figures in tax incentives), and it was shaping up as Summit’s most expensive movie to date.

But even when the movie had assembled more of its cast, including Freeman, Warners still passed. Execs at the Burbank studio simply felt that “RED” was “too small” to serve as a Warner Bros. movie. One insider said Warners was more interested in the bigger DC properties, especially when “The Dark Knight” rang up a billion dollars worldwide; anything that didn’t measure up to that potential was considered low priority.

According to insiders, the failed “Jonah Hex” movie, which came on the heels of tepid comic adaptation “The Losers,” will be the last one made with one of the lesser-known, nonsuperpowered characters in the DC library for a long time.

Warners’ focus now is making sure “Green Lantern” launches a franchise and that “Flash” is queued up, eventually paving the way for an all-star “Justice League” movie in the same way Marvel has teed up its “Avengers” movie.

But if Summit enjoys success with “RED,” Warners still could have second thoughts.

“They will say they don’t care” about the movie, said one exec, “but the reality is if this movie works, you will never see a DC title go out the door again.”