"He Felt Strangled": Joel Silver's Lavish Spending, Lack of Hits Angered Producing Partners Ahead of Exit

Joel Silver attends The Nice Guys press conference 2016 - Getty -H 2019
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The man behind 'The Matrix' and 'Lethal Weapon' franchises leaves his namesake company as a financing deal with billionaire Daryl Katz goes south amid tensions over costs and discipline.

For decades, Hollywood producer Joel Silver was known for his lavish spending, prickly personality and prime office space on the Warner Bros. studio lot, where he presided over action franchises like Lethal Weapon and The Matrix with gusto and, frequently, green lights.

When Silver lost his Warners deal and a follow-up arrangement with Universal went south, he then partnered with Canadian private equity financier Daryl Katz of the Katz Group. Outside the studio system and facing a movie business no longer tolerant of old-school spending, many thought Silver’s freewheeling days would be curtailed. They weren’t.

In fact, it was Silver’s overspending, combined with lack of hits, that led the one-time film player to butt heads with Katz and ultimately to him exiting Silver Pictures, the company he founded in 1980, multiple sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.

It is unclear whether Silver was fired or left on his own accord. Calls to Silver Pictures were not returned. Silver’s representatives declined to comment. The Katz Group did not immediately respond for comment.

Silver, 66, rose to prominence in the era of the non-writing movie producer, a time when he and peers like Jerry Bruckheimer could command $2.5 million plus a cut of first-dollar gross on a studio film. Warner Bros. was a home to him, advancing him money when he needed it and assigning him big-budget features to develop and produce. As he rose in prominence, Silver purchased homes in Brentwood, Malibu and South Carolina, as well as an art collection he once valued at $17 million, courtside Lakers seats and the architecturally significant Venice Post Office property near the ocean in Venice Beach.

But then the business changed and studios began cutting loose high-priced producers. When Silver lost his lucrative first-look deal with Warners in 2012, he inked a less lucrative five-year pact with Universal to distribute films, with Liam Neeson's Non-Stop as the first title under the deal.

As THR reported in a 2015 feature, Silver maintained his lavish lifestyle and developed money issues, and in April of that year he partnered with Katz, a Canadian billionaire and owner of the NHL's Edmonton Oilers. In announcing the deal, Katz, a relative newcomer to Hollywood, praised Silver for his "incredible track record and relationships across the entertainment industry." At the same time, indie finance veteran Hal Sadoff was named CEO of Silver Pictures.

Since then, Silver’s output has been scant: 2018’s Superfly, a crime thriller distributed by Columbia Pictures, disappointed with a $20.7 million worldwide gross. George Clooney’s Suburbicon, cobbled together with independent financing and made under Silver’s Dark Castle label (giving Silver an executive producer credit), made just $5.7 million via Paramount. (The Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling starrer The Nice Guys, released in 2016 by Warner Bros., grossed $62.7 million but was already in the works at the time of the Katz deal.)

But Silver continued to act as his old hit-maker self, say sources, which Katz was attempting to rein in. Weekly lunch meetings, with meals made by a private chef at his home, were reduced to meetings at the office, then reduced to an irregular schedule. His retinue of two assistants was reduced to one at the end of last year, says a well-placed source. Silver also had a driver, a holdover perk from his studio days, that he continued to enjoy.

In May, the company was hit with layoffs as two executives and support staff were let go. There were hard feelings on both sides, say insiders. “They felt he was overspending,” says one person with ties to the company. “He felt strangled.” (Katz is no stranger to excess. When Nice Guys premiered in Cannes, he eschewed the usual billionaire security detail and instead kept his yacht fully surrounded and armed near the Hotel du Cap.)

The equity firm took more and more away from Silver in an attempt to control him. 

Last month, Silver Pictures’ officially parted ways with the Venice Post Office property, which had fallen into disrepair amid criticism from the community. According to property records obtained by THR, the structure at 1601 Main St. was sold to United Kingdom-based investors for $22 million. In 2012, Silver purchased the property for $7.6 million and pledged to convert it into Silver Pictures’ new headquarters, in the process transforming the surrounding beachside area into a new creative hub.

That never happened. The building’s renovations stalled almost immediately and in 2015, multiple liens were placed on the property for unpaid bills by contractors. Silver also used it as collateral on several loans he took out. “Joel was still seeing the world through his old Warner Bros. lens. Through Hal [Sadoff], they were trying to make him see though the lens of now,” says a Silver Pictures insider. 

Silver remains a producer on Sherlock Holmes 3 and Logan’s Run, both at Warner Bros., and both are in active development. It’s unclear if Warners will agree to pay his traditional $2.5 million producing fee (plus gross), or whether the fees would go to the company or to Silver himself. One insider speculates a settlement is being negotiated that will allow Silver to start over on his own, though it’s not clear what will become of the company that still bears his name.

Peter Kiefer contributed reporting.