EXCLUSIVE: The moment has come for Universal Pictures to fish or cut bait on The Dark Tower, the ultra-ambitious adaptation of the Stephen King 7-novel series that was going to encompass a trilogy of feature films and two limited run TV series. The studio has said, No Thanks. Universal has passed on going forward with the project, dealing a huge blow in the plan for Ron Howard to direct Akiva Goldsman’s script, with Brian Grazer, Goldsman and the author producing and Javier Bardem starring as gunslinger Roland Deschain. Now, the filmmakers will have to find a new backer of what might well be the most ambitious movie project since Bob Shaye allowed Peter Jackson to shoot three installments of The Lord of the Rings back to back.
This stunning development comes after Universal in May pushed plans to start production this summer on the first film. The studio claimed to be on track for a February, postponing to reduce the budget. This temporarily dispelled rumors that Universal was putting the project in turnaround, rumors that cropped up when the studio put workers on hiatus. But it was only a temporary respite. I’m told that this time, the studio reviewed Goldsman’s script for the first film and the first leg of the TV series, and would only commit to the single film. That wasn’t good enough for the filmmakers, who had already hired comic book and Heroes and Battlestar Galactica writer/producer Mark Verheiden to co-write the TV component with Goldsman, which was to be made for NBC Universal Television (studio insiders deny that the studio was only willing to make the movie and not the series). I know the filmmakers planned to make it all part of the first shoot while they had the cast in place and the sets erected. I’d heard back in May that Warner Bros–where Goldsman’s Weed Road is based and which is fully financing two installments of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit–was a possible landing place for the adaptation of King’s 7-novel epic that is that author’s answer to Tolkien’s LOTR novels. The Dark Tower is about the last living member of a knightly order of gunslingers, with Deschain becoming humanity’s last hope to save civilization as he hits the road to find the Dark Tower. Along the way, he encounters characters, good and bad, in a world that has an old West feel.
Why did Universal chairman Adam Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley decide not to go forward? They weren’t saying, at this point. Nor were the filmmakers. Universal has put big chips on the table for several tent pole films and maybe that has something to do with it. The big bets include the Peter Berg-directed Battleship with Taylor Kitsch starring, as well as the Keanu Reeves-starrer 47 Ronin with Carl Rinsch directing. If you listen to word on the street, both of these are $200 million realm with huge marketing budgets. Universal recently passed on green lighting At The Mountains of Madness, which Guillermo del Toro was to direct with Tom Cruise starring, based on HP Lovecraft horror tale. That time, the studio balked at funding a $150 million film that gave del Toro the latitude to deliver his cut with an R-rating.
Insiders said that Universal brass loved the filmmakers and the project, but couldn’t make it work with the current budget in its business model.