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Summer Movies: When Studio Loyalty to Talent Backfires

Johnny Depp
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Johnny Depp

Director and favorite son Shawn Levy zings Fox as "The Internship" flops -- as big bets tied to entrenched relationships come due at Sony ("Grown Ups 2") and Disney ("The Lone Ranger").

This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it became apparent that Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's The Internship was in trouble, director Shawn Levy and Vaughn -- the film's star, co-writer and producer -- began complaining internally about how the comedy was being marketed by 20th Century Fox. After Internship opened June 7 to a tepid $17.3 million and a fourth-place domestic finish, Levy went public, tweeting: "big thx 4all yr nice twts this wknd on The Internship. Ultimately, all I can determine is the film; marktng/B.O. r byond my control."

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The criticism stung some at Fox because Levy has long enjoyed favored status at the studio thanks to the Night at the Museum franchise and hits like Date Night. And Internship is one of several risky summer films -- including Johnny Depp's The Lone Ranger at Disney and Adam Sandler's Grown Ups 2 at Sony -- that will test long-standing relationships between Hollywood studios and key talent. These marriages can enjoy long periods of prosperity, but they also are perilous because studios often entrust such talent with more authority over their movies. As with any union, tensions can run high when the going gets tough.

From the outset, Levy and Vaughn (who brought the $58 million project to Levy) were insistent that Internship pay homage to tech giant Google, even though that meant making a PG-13 film, not an R-rated romp like Vaughn and Wilson's Wedding Crashers ($285.2 million worldwide in 2005). Google did not want to participate in an R-rated film, say insiders, and the company also demanded and got a say in some of the marketing materials. The film's trailers and TV spots ended up being criticized as seeming more like ads for Google than a ribald Vince Vaughn comedy.

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One Fox executive says Internship was in no way a favor to Levy, whose first two Night at the Museum movies combined to gross nearly $990 million globally. "When you get Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to reteam for the first time since Wedding Crashers for a director who has made you millions of dollars, you're not helping the talent, you've hit the jackpot," notes the exec. Another exec involved in the film says no one anticipated the Google backlash. The financial fate of Internship, co-financed by Fox and New Regency, ultimately will depend on how it performs overseas. Sources say Vaughn was paid $15 million, while Levy received $8 million. And Levy and Fox won't be filing divorce papers anytime soon: The director is shooting the Tina Fey-Jason Bateman comedy This Is Where I Leave You for Warner Bros., but he next directs Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum 3 for Fox.

Over at Warner Bros., studio chief Jeff Robinov's fierce loyalty to director Zack Snyder is being tested June 14 with the $225 million Man of Steel. The relationship dates to the 2007 hit 300, even though Snyder's three subsequent Warners films -- Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Sucker Punch -- disappointed. However, while giving him Man of Steel (over the other finalist, Darren Aronofsky), Robinov took out insurance with producer Christopher Nolan, the studio's most important filmmaker (Batman, Inception). "Chris had the confidence in Zack, and based on the movie I've seen, Chris was spot-on," says Warners president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman.

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Robinov has worked with Snyder for years, but new Disney chief Alan Horn's The Lone Ranger is his first megabudget film with the powerful Pirates of the Caribbean team of director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and star Depp (though Horn worked with Depp at Warners). The trio have generated billions for Disney, and Depp's Alice in Wonderland grossed north of $1 billion in 2010. Lone Ranger (July 3), however, is a huge gamble, costing about $250 million to produce, and anything short of massive box office could significantly impact the studio's relationship with all three talents -- Bruckheimer in particular.

Sony's Amy Pascal, known for being generous with talent, is testing several of her key relationships this summer. The studio is reeling from the poor performance of Will Smith's passion project After Earth, which opened to a soft $27.5 million, the first time a Smith summer movie failed to launch at No. 1 in two decades. Smith has spent nearly his entire career making Sony movies (Men in Black, Hancock), generating more than $5 billion in global ticket sales, though it remains to be seen whether Sony will bet big on him again. Another question is what happens if Sandler's Grown Ups 2, opening July 12, doesn't work. Like Smith, Sandler has spent most of his career at Sony, but he recently set up his next films at Warners and Paramount after his most recent Sony comedies That's My Boy and Jack and Jill underperformed. The studio also is invested in filmmaker Roland Emmerich, who made White House Down (June 28) after Sony released his lower-budget passion project Anonymous in 2011.

Paramount's long relationship with filmmaker J.J. Abrams is resulting in another win with Star Trek Into Darkness, which has taken in nearly $380 million worldwide. But Abrams won't be available to direct a third Trek, at least not for a while, because he was lured to revive the Star Wars franchise for Disney and Lucasfilm. More pressing for studio chief Brad Grey is World War Z, hitting theaters June 21 after being delayed to refashion the third act. The $200 million zombie thriller sprung from the studio's long relationship with Brad Pitt's Plan B, where Grey once was a partner. If it fails to deliver, Grey might have some explaining to do to his Viacom bosses. "Studios are in the talent game," notes one exec. "More often than not, if you bet on the right talent, it pays off. Sometimes you have to give a little back."