'Annihilation': Behind-the-Scenes of a Producer Clash and That Netflix Deal (Exclusive)

Scott Rudin ('The Social Network,' 'Lady Bird') and David Ellison, the head of Skydance Productions, had opposing views on how to handle the Natalie Portman movie.
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Scott Rudin, David Ellison

After Alex Garland scored big with his surprise hit Ex Machina, Paramount (then run by Brad Grey and Rob Moore) looked very savvy when in late 2014 the studio landed the British filmmaker to adapt the sci-fi novel Annihilation.

Now, however, just ahead of the movie’s February 2018 release, Paramount, now run by chairman Jim Gianopulos, is partially unloading the movie.

The studio is finalizing a deal with Netflix to take over the international distribution of the film, which stars Natalie Portman. Paramount will still release the movie in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in China, while Netflix will begin streaming it overseas 17 days later.

While the move is partly reflective of the concern studios now bring to releasing challenging midbudget movies, one impetus has its roots in a clash between two of the movie’s powerhouse producers.

In one corner is Scott Rudin, whose many credits include The Social Network and Lady Bird, and in the other sits David Ellison, the head of Skydance Productions, the company that made Geostorm and Terminator: Genysis. Skydance is also a major co-financier of Paramount’s slate.

Annihilation is a postapocalyptic adventure that sees Portman looking for her missing husband while leading an expedition into a territory cut off from civilization. A mysterious contamination, disappearing colleagues, a deadly animal and a being known as the Crawler figure into the story.

The movie, which wrapped shooting in July 2016, had a poor test screening this summer that sources say was the root of the conflict. After the screening, Ellison became concerned that the movie was “too intellectual” and “too complicated,” according to sources, and wanted changes made to make it appeal to a wider audience. They included making Portman’s character more sympathetic as well as tweaking the ending.

Rudin, who executive produced Ex Machina, sided with Garland, defending the movie and refused to take notes. Rudin was able to hold his line, according to a source, because he has final cut.

Things got testier from there, with Paramount caught in the middle. The studio ultimately decided that finding another distributor, preferably a streamer, could be the best fit for the movie which was deemed to have certain box office ceilings.

With Ellison not wanting to lose money after the poor performances of Geostorm, the billionaire producer is seeking to avoid a worldwide release and hopes that a digital release may be a better fit. The deal calls for Netflix to cover a good chunk of the production budget, which is in the $55 million range.

It’s also a win for Paramount, which limits its exposure in a deal made by a previous regime. 

Studios making a distribution deal with Netflix may be coming more commonplace and replacing old rivalries. Earlier this year, New Line made a deal with the streamer to co-finance and take certain rights to its reboot of Shaft which will star Jessie T. Usher and Samuel L. Jackson. 

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