BREAKING NEWS! UPDATE 11:30 AM: Paramount and agencies are now threatening to send those goats to us if we write any of this. But here goes anyway: as comedians like to say, we suggest you go out, buy a hat, and then hang onto it. Because this is a really rich deal that will give the depressed movie marketplace for star vehicles a real lift. But if other Hollywood studios are going to be looking at this closely, then they should know that the pendulum is swinging back in favor of bigtime actors only under certain conditions. As one insider explains to us: “This actually shows where the bar is for A-talent to get something done. That it used to be, if an A-talent was interested in a project, that would get the movie going. Now, you have to have the combination of an A-level star and a great idea that is completely developed.”
Said another source: “Not only is it a studio greenlight based on a pitch, but they’ve also gone to that pre-recession place by offering first-dollar gross. That’s what makes this deal huge. Sasha can make $30M-$50M-$80M here. Whereas under recent deals he’d get his $20M upfront — and then he’d bottom out.” Paramount, meanwhile, “didn’t accept everything that WME was asking for,” a source tells us. But the studio “feels good” about the relatively modest $65M budget which has an extra $3 million cushion before the principals get hit with overages. (More deal details below).
In the laugher, Sacha Baron Cohen (repped by WME) plays dual roles: both a goat herder and a deposed foreign dictator who gets lost in the United States. Cohen wants to keep the storyline close to the vest, but we’re told it’s in the spirit of Coming To America meets Trading Places. It will be his next film. Not only is Cohen starring, but he’s also writing the film with the three Curb Your Enthusiasm scribes — writers Alec Berg (repped by UTA), Jeff Schaffer (repped by UTA), and David Mandel (repped by WME) — and all four are producing. The quartet went to 6 studios in 2 days pitching for an hour each. (“They all kind of came up with the pitch together. And one of the reasons this was so special is that the whole storyline was fleshed out, including all the main comedy scenes, by Sasha during the pitch.”) But this is the first time Sasha is bringing these new characters to the big screen.
In the end, 4 studios said “yes” to the project and even to Sacha’s gross ask. So that’s when Paramount sent the goats. Because Adam Goodman, Rob Moore and Brad Grey really wanted this pic. And then it came down to Paramount vs Sony. Paramount won by essentially committing to make the movie. And the only way it’s not made is if Sasha does not approve the script. (He also has approval over all the elements.) We’ve learned that Sacha gets $20 million against 20% first-dollar gross. There is an additional 5% to be split between all four producers — Sasha and the 3 writers (who, besides this gross participation, get between $3M-$4M) — and a director, and maybe even another marquee actor. Cohen’s gross participation rises to 30% once Paramount recoups the pic’s budget and distribution costs. (Paramount, of course, gets a distribution fee.) “But it’s 30% only when it’s a breakout hit,” an insider assures us.
This is the kind of deal that used to be made regularly in Hollywood. Rival studios claim last year Sony Pictures bought a Will Ferrell pitch in the exact same way — but gave the gross and a $100 million budget. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller and Will Smith can still get big numbers like this. But nobody else gets that now as the studios have succeeded in beating down first-dollar gross deals. Paramount may get some heat as a result. “But this was atypical because it was a guaranteed movie. It had everything,” an insider tells us.
EXCLUSIVE 5:30 AM: The deal is headed to Paramount after a lot of studios were hot for the comedy, and ultimately Sony and Paramount were the final two left standing in the bidding war. So the goat gambit worked. (Actually, there were two goats sent by the studio: one to WME headquarters, and the other to its client Sacha, both wearing Paramount T-shirts and trailing animal handlers. That’s how badly Paramount topper Brad Grey, who was leading his team’s negotiations, wanted this comedy project). This followed Sacha Baron Cohen (WME client) and writers Alec Berg (UTA client), Jeff Schaffe (UTA client)r, and David Mandel (WME client) pitching the laugher to a total of six studio presidents over 2 days. Berg, Schaffer, and Mandel were the Seinfeld writer/producers who are now the executive producers of Curb Your Enthusiasm and get a ton of money for movie jobs. So this will be a whopping deal.
As we reported yesterday, visitors to WME were greeted by a goat wandering across the 3rd floor atrium — that is, until Ari Emanuel had the goat removed after it took a dump in the hallway — because there’s a character in the movie that tends goats and the Paramount guys wanted to show WME, which was selling the project, they have a sense of humor, too. “This is the reason why people are paying so much attention to this pitch. It’s a big straight ahead comedy and Sacha is starring in a really funny role,” a studio source told me.
This big deal comes at a time when Hollywood studios seem to hate spending money on development lately. But they couldn’t resist Sacha or the writers’ bonafides. Schaffer was one of the writers on Bruno. Mandel’s script work on the wife-swapping baseball film The Trade has Warner Bros hoping to make the film with Ben Affleck. The trio’s last credited movie collaboration was EuroTrip and The Cat in the Hat.