Warner Bros. Ending Deal With Producer Joel Silver

Joel Silver
Joel Silver
 Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Warner Bros. Pictures is ending its long-running relationship with producer Joel Silver, who has produced some of the studio’s biggest franchises such as the Lethal Weapon and Matrix movies as well as the recent Sherlock Holmes films.

The studio has told Silver, who is based in lavish offices on its Burbank lot, that it is not renewing his deal, which expires at the end of 2012, studio sources confirmed Friday.

Silver, 59, has been a fixture at Warners for years and is known to have had an extremely lucrative deal, which guaranteed him a percentage of the revenue from his pictures and loans against future earnings. Additionally, Warners has an agreement to distribute movies from Dark Castle, Silver Pictures’ privately funded genre label.

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The move comes at a time when studios are cutting back on rich producer deals. Universal has tightened the terms of its deal with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, and Disney has done the same with Jerry Bruckheimer. Silver’s exclusive arrangement at Warners has been one of the most expensive deals on that studio’s books. "It was made under the theory that they were paying for the privilege of his services," said one source. "But it proved to be a law of diminishing returns over time."

Silver’s ability to command big advances against future box-office success worked during flush times. But in 2008, Silver presided over a flop when Speed Racer, which cost $120 million, grossed just $94 million worldwide. In the wake of that movie, and before his fortunes rallied with the success of the two Sherlock Holmes movies, Silver owed the studio as much as $30 million, according to multiple sources.

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Silver came aboard the Sherlock movies through his relationship with Robert Downey Jr. -- who starred in Silver’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005 -- and the actor’s wife, Susan Downey, who served as co-president of Dark Castle and executive vp production at Silver Pictures until 2009, when she shifted her focus to producing movies with her husband. Sherlock Holmes, released in 2009, grossed $524 million, and its 2011 sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, reached $535 million worldwide. But Silver complained about the studio’s release strategy for the film, creating tension with Warner Bros. Pictures Group president Jeff Robinov.

Silver’s luxe Warners deal helped pay for the producer’s extravagant lifestyle. And multiple sources say that budgets for Dark Castle productions, which were designed to be low- to modestly budgeted genre movies, were inflated because of his fat producer fee, which sources peg at about $7 million

Warners also paid for Silver’s office overhead, which included a staff of about 20 at Silver Pictures. Silver has two assistants, an office manager with an assistant, about eight people in features, a TV operation, a general receptionist and a business affairs unit. He also has a personal driver, a personal runner and a projectionist for his home screening room.

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"You can't live like that anymore," says one insider. 

His offices have been among the most coveted on the Warners lot ever since he moved into space once occupied by producer-director Richard Donner (Superman). There's a waterfall outside Silver’s personal office, and inside, he's got a “napping room” accessed through "cool automatic sliding doors," according to one producer.

Signs have pointed to a breakup between Silver and Warners for several months. The producer has been scouting office space in Santa Monica and, with his eye for architecturally significant buildings, is looking at an abandoned post office. Another signal that changes might have been imminent came when Emmett/Furla Films came on board to finance Motor City last week. Although the movie is a Dark Castle production, and Dark Castle finances its movies through its own fund, the move suggested that Dark Castle was seeking additional sources of funding.

Silver also is embroiled in a legal battle with Goldman Sachs. In 2010, he sued the powerhouse investment bank, claiming it stiffed him of more than $30 million due to a series of financial arrangements related to films produced by Dark Castle. Goldman Sachs countersued in September, claiming Silver made deliberately false and misleading representations in order to fraudulently gain tens of millions of dollars in upfront cash payments. 

While Silver’s overall deal with Warners is coming to an end, he still has several movies in the pipeline. Among them are Walter Hill’s actioner Bullet to the Head, starring Sylvester Stallone, which Dark Castle is producing with IM Global and After Dark Films, and The Apparition, a Dark Castle horror movie directed by Todd Lincoln, which Warners will release in October. The studio also is expected to continue to distribute movies from Dark Castle under terms of a deal that lasts for several more years.

Calls to Silver were referred by his office to Warner Bros. spokespersons, who confirmed the end of the deal but declined further comment.  

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