Why Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Future at Universal is Uncertain

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Insiders predict the Imagine duo can't sustain their rich Universal deal due to a changed industry and the recent "Dark Tower" debacle.

Universal's recent decision to pull the plug on Imagine Entertainment's ambitious The Dark Tower underscores the enormous pressure on the vaunted production company and its relationship with the studio that has released most of its films since 1986.

The Imagine deal has given Universal hits like The Nutty Professor and Oscar fodder including Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. But it is a costly one: well north of $8 million a year including overhead and development costs, according to sources, as well as a whopping 7.5 percent of the gross on Imagine films. Industry vets say such deals are unsustainable, not just for Ron Howard and Brian Grazer -- among the most successful producers in town -- but for just about every big player at any studio.

In the view of many contacted by THR, a re-evaluation of Imagine's deal, which runs through 2013, is inevitable. But the issues facing the company might be far larger than a renegotiation. One longtime observer says the real question is "whether Imagine, as it currently exists, can work. It's been a very successful partnership for more than 20 years, but the last several movies didn't work, including the last few that Ron Howard has directed."

Howard's Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code grossed more than $1.2 billion for Sony, but his recent Universal films -- The Dilemma, Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man -- were disappointing. Other costly Imagine films have faltered, including Robin Hood and American Gangster.

The studio is releasing the Imagine-produced Cowboys & Aliens on July 29 and has high hopes for the November action comedy Tower Heist, starring Ben Stiller and directed by Brett Ratner. But Comcast-owned Universal is focused on minimizing risk rather than gambling on films that lack clear selling points.

Meanwhile, Imagine's TV division, which distributes programs through 20th Television, still has Parenthood and the upcoming The Playboy Club (both on NBC), but 24, Lie to Me and Friday Night Lights are done.

Dark Tower met its end July 15 when Universal pulled out of what was to be the first of three films and two TV projects based on the Stephen King book series. A source says the initial budget of $165 million was trimmed to $135 million. With Universal still balking, Imagine frantically shopped the project but came up empty.

Now Grazer, 60, and Howard, 57, are prepping Rush, a Chris Hemsworth racing drama scripted by Peter Morgan that Cross Creek Pictures is financing (a U.S. distributor has not been announced). They also will adapt Jon Krakauer's book Under the Banner of Heaven -- for Warner Bros.

Imagine spokesman Michael Rosenberg says, "There are no issues with the relationship with Universal." But knowledgeable sources believe Imagine will shop itself before setting its course. And observers say they will be dealing with a changed world. "It's a hard thing," says a top exec at a major studio. "A few years ago they had A Beautiful Mind and they were at the Oscars thanking Universal. Nothing really lasts."           

HITS AND MISSES: Imagine's past five films have delivered mixed box-office results despite big marketing spends.

The Dilemma (2011)

  • Production Costs: $70 million
  • Global Box office: $69.3 million

Robin Hood (2010)

  • Production Costs: $200 million
  • Global Box office:  $321.7 million

Angels & Demons* (2009)

  • Production Costs: $150 million
  • Global Box office:  $486 million

Frost/Nixon (2008)

  • Production Costs: $25 million
  • Global Box office:  $27.4 million

Changeling (2008)

  • Production Costs: $55 million
  • Global Box office:  $113 million

* Sony release; all others Universal