The Franchise Pot of Gold: Why Michael De Luca Exited Sony for a Producing Deal at Universal

Austin Hargrave
Michael De Luca

De Luca's decision to trade in his executive stripes for the unpredictable life of a studio producer shouldn't have come as a surprise — when 'Fifty Shades of Grey' lit up the box office, he knew he could make millions more over the long term.

This story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Michael De Luca's decision to leave his job as Sony’s production president, news of which broke in early April, stunned insiders — not because he was exiting the studio (there had been speculation he might take an exec post at Paramount) but because he was returning to civilian life as a producer. After all, he had closed his production company in December 2013 after such successes as Captain Phillips and The Social Network, opting for the security of the Sony job and an annual salary of $2.4 million.

Why the change?

The answer is that he had found the pot of gold at the end of every producer’s rainbow — a franchise. Fifty Shades of Grey, which he produced with Dana Brunetti and author EL James (De Luca initiated the project before he went to Sony, but the film was released only in February), had become a massive hit, earning $568 million worldwide; and Universal is poised to move forward with two sequels. De Luca would have his salary as an in-house producer, plus untold millions from his share of the backend. It was worth giving up his day job.

His move underscores the point that in today’s Hollywood, there are franchise producers and then there is everybody else. Just a few years ago, the most powerful and admired producers in the business were such men as Brian Grazer and Scott Rudin, who consistently delivered box-office hits that also scooped up awards. They’ve won best picture Oscars for A Beautiful Mind and No Country for Old Men, respectively. But in terms of studio-think, they now come second in importance to such producers as Neal Moritz and Kevin Feige, the franchise kings respectively responsible for the Fast & Furious series and the Marvel superhero films.

Just look at their box office. The total earnings for Moritz’s past three Furious releases are $1.8 billion; the total for Feige’s last two movies (Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is $1.49 billion. Contrast that with Grazer, whose last big film, Rush, made $90 million, and Rudin, whose last three (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Top Five and Rosewater) made less than $200 million combined.

"The studios realized that they needed to have these franchises to stay in the business of movies," says producer Roy Lee (The Lego Movie). "Once in a while, a great script does come along, but those are needles in a haystack."

Without a franchise, even those producers who have rare first-look deals (whereby a studio pays their salary and overhead in exchange for getting first dibs on their material) essentially are functioning as independents. And they’re having a harder time finding the money to make their films. "There’s no doubt the world of theatrical filmed entertainment right now is a franchise business," says Mandeville’s Todd Lieberman. "That isn’t to say there aren’t great opportunities to make movies that aren’t franchises, but it’s a hell of a lot harder."