As It Unleashes 'Godzilla,' Legendary Pictures Makes Big Moves

Legendary Pictures

Thomas Tull's company is settling into its new deal at Universal as its ambitions grow.

This story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary Pictures, wants to do more than just write checks. Nearly 10 years ago, when Tull, a onetime laundromat owner-turned-investment banker, first showed up at Warner Bros. with $500 million he raised, the studio happily signed him to help back two dozen films. But Legendary's summer 2013 move from Warners to a five-year deal at Universal largely was about becoming a more active producer, a goal that had chafed former studio head Jeff Robinov. And Godzilla, which launches May 16 as the final Legendary movie released in the U.S. by Warners, is a step in that autonomous direction.

The $165 million-budgeted return of the giant lizard marks the second major in-house production from Legendary -- which oversaw development as well as the physical shoot in Vancouver and Hawaii -- following last summer's Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro's $190 million monsters-vs.-robots epic took in $411 million worldwide (including $112 million in China). It squeaked into the black, says the company, but was no blockbuster, and a sequel has not been greenlighted.

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Instead of trying to summon echoes of monsters past, Legendary has gone straight to the source, licensing Godzilla rights from Japan's Toho Co. And Tull has entrusted the movie to British newcomer Gareth Edwards, whose previous film as a director (Monsters) was made for about $500,000. Tull says Godzilla will break even "if it [does] $450 million worldwide. Anything above that would be pretty good." Tracking suggests a $60 million-plus opening in the U.S., much bigger than Pacific Rim's $37 million. Still, the film is a gamble -- Godzilla's previous big-screen incarnation, released by Sony in 1998, did only $379 million worldwide. Legendary is shouldering 75 percent of the budget and the cost of prints and advertising on the new film.

Even before Godzilla's release, Tull was focusing on his new life at Universal. In 2012, he assembled $720 million in new financing, including $443 million from Wadell & Reed Financial. Eager to expand into television, digital and even theme parks, he found a much more eager taker in Universal, which was seeking a financing partner to replace Relativity and to limit exposure on the big-budget movies Tull enjoys backing. "They were aggressive about what they wanted us to do and how we would fit in," says Tull.

Sources say Legendary agreed for the first two years of the deal to invest $275 million annually in movies it co-finances with Universal as well as those it fully finances. That number rises to $350 million a year for the final three years. Legendary pays a 10 percent distribution fee on the movies it co-finances -- on par with its Warners deal -- but it only has to pay 8 percent on its fully financed features and will have control over the marketing spend on those pics. (Legendary has an in-house marketing team run by Emily Castel.)

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Legendary's first Universal release is the low-budget found-footage movie As Above, So Below, set in the sewers of Paris, coming in August. It also has taken a stake in two of Universal's other 2014 releases: The Untold Dracula and the awards hopeful Unbroken, which Angelina Jolie is directing. Beginning in 2015, Legendary will have a much bigger influence on the Universal slate, releasing two movies that it has fully financed -- Michael Mann's Cyber and the fantasy The Seventh Son -- and investing in Jurassic World, which Universal already was moving forward on.

Other parts of the new Legendary are works in progress. In June, Tull enlisted Bruce Rosenblum, former Warner Bros. Television Group president, to run a TV and digital media unit, which he is building out. And through his Hong Kong-based Legendary East, Tull has struck a co-production deal with China Film Group. No new films have come out of that pact yet, but CFG has made an eight-figure investment in Seventh Son and the video game-based Warcraft, scheduled for 2016. Now Tull must wait to see if his sweat as well as his equity pays off.