Quentin Tarantino Scored Rare Ownership Deal With 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

Tony Barson/FilmMagic
Owning the copyright allows Tarantino to share in multiple revenue streams.

By acquiring the copyright to his latest release, the filmmaker joins a rarefied group of helmers that includes George  Lucas and Mel  Gibson.

In November 2017, the auction for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s latest project, came down to two studios, Warner Bros. and Sony.

Both were ready to cover the hefty budget of $95 million. Both were willing to give the acclaimed filmmaker a significant cut of the back-end proceeds. And both acquiesced to him having final cut.

But when it came to ceding copyright control of the movie to the filmmaker, only Sony, then eager to build out a winning slate, was willing to do it.  

With that line item, Sony won the right to finance and distribute what is now one of the buzziest movies of the year, and Tarantino became one of the few filmmakers to enjoy a rare and unique perk.

Sources say Quentin Tarantino's deal for Once Upon a Time gives him full ownership of the underlying copyright after 30 years in a complex schedule that shifts ownership from studio to filmmaker over that period. (Several sources say the timetable is a much shorter 20 years, with one source saying it's 10 years.) That puts the Oscar winner among a tiny pool of directors who have negotiated ownership stakes in their films, including George Lucas, Mel Gibson, Peter Jackson, and Richard Linklater.

Some directors who have managed this feat did so because they put up the film's budget, like Gibson, who reaped hundreds of millions of dollars from his self-financed The Passion of the Christ. Others took a gamble on either time or their upfront payday. Linklater negotiated for the copyright to his coming-of-age drama Boyhood, which was made during the course of 12 years.

Peter Jackson owns the underlying rights to District 9, whose development he funded and whose independent sales deals allowed ownership retention. (The filmmaker also owns his early indie horrors such as Bad Taste and Heavenly Creatures.) And Lucas morphed into a billionaire mogul by taking a smaller fee on the original Star Wars and keeping ownership of merchandising, licensing and sequels.

By contrast, top box office earners like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan aren't part of the copyright club, which allows a director to share in each part of the revenue stream and eventually sell his or her stake to a library. Many directors still are paid for a film's post-theatrical life on a less-advantageous royalties basis.

Tarantino didn't have to gamble money or an inordinate amount of time to earn the copyright to Once Upon a Time, whose budget came in at $90 million after the project qualified for a California tax credit. But he did create an entire media world surrounding DiCaprio's character. So if Tarantino wants to make a Bounty Law TV show (a fictitious series in Once Upon a Time), Sony won't own it, Tarantino will. However, Sony retains the right to be involved in a Once Upon a Time sequel or prequel.

Insiders say Tarantino asked for the copyright since he had already secured similar terms for his movies made under Harvey Weinstein, first at Miramax and later at The Weinstein Co. Sources with knowledge of those deals say copyright on his movies converted after 20 years. Still, the filmmaker now becomes a unicorn among Hollywood directors given that the Once Upon a Time deal was inked with one of the major studios as opposed to an independent.

When it came to Tarantino's terms in the 2017 auction, Warner Bros. drew a line in the proverbial sand at the copyright demand, fearing that it would set a precedent.

"Warner Bros. couldn't do that," says a source familiar with the deal, "because then they would have to give Christopher Nolan that same deal."

A version of this story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.