EXCLUSIVE: I’ve learned that Legendary Entertainment‘s Thomas Tull continues kicking tires all over Hollywood right now. He’s planned a meeting for later this week with the Lionsgate team including chief Jon Feltheimer and Summit-turned-Lionsgate film co-chairman Rob Friedman who’d like to mitigate their feature film risks which worry Wall Street. “It’s an interesting choice and a new entry,” a source tells me. “He really respects Rob and Felt.” I already told you over the weekend that Tull has met twice with NBCUniversal chief and Comcast #2 Steve Burke over at NBCU and that four studios were in this bake-off. Well, now add Lionsgate. Sony is still in the running “because he loves their business and loves the Sony people and really likes Michael Lynton”. So, too, Fox because Tull “loves” Jim Gianopulos. “But if Jeff Robinov goes there it may not happen,” a source told me today. (Robinov months before he parted ways with Warner Bros told me, “My relationship with Tull is pretty good. It’s had its ups and downs. I’d like to see them stay.”) As for Warner Bros, Tull for weeks now has begun every meeting with a studio by pledging that he’s “not talking to Warner Bros and definitely intending to move on”. But the studios tell me they’re convinced that’s just a negotiating ploy and if the right deal was offered he’d stay.
So strange to hear the words ‘love’ and ‘like’ tossed around so much when describing Hollywood’s always complicated relationships. Says an insider, “Thomas is all about, ‘Who do I like?’ He likes Fox, he loves both Sony people, he loves Universal and loves Ron Meyer and the Comcast guys. He loves Alan Horn but Disney doesn’t need him.” As I’ve already reported, both Disney and Paramount respectfully passed. Remember that media frenzy I predicted? Tonight, The Hollywood Reporter erroneously reported that Tull has pared down his list to Universal and Sony — not true. Variety tonight inaccurately reported that only Universal, Sony and Fox are still in the running — also not true. Neither media outlet had a clue about the forthcoming Legendary-Lionsgate meeting.
I’ve also learned exclusively what Tull wants to offer and what he wants in return for a new deal as he makes his way around the studios. Summed up one studio mogul who heard Tull’s pitch: “His appetite is significant. It”s what he thinks Legendary is worth.” I’ve learned that Tull starts off talking conceptually — not specifics. “Thomas is looking for a 360 media deal. He wants films, parks, TV. He wants a big partner, an even more all-encompassing deal to leverage his IP library of films, comics, and soon TV and license out the content he owns.”
But let’s get real: Tull has very little IP to speak of and the studios want Legendary mostly for what it will finance for them. After building up his war chest and closing on $720M in financing in 2011 alone and more in 2012, Tull has “has access to billions more through various revolver accounts and other levers he can pull,” a source tells me. “He did $443M of pure equity with Waddell & Reed in a monster deal in December 2012. He has equity and financing for $272M. And he has a huge cash-rich business with hit after hit after hit over the years. That’s a lot of leverage.”
Overall, Tull wants a much improved deal over his present one at Warner Bros. “He feels he was paying too high a distribution fee at Warner Bros for Pacific Rim and Godzilla which Legendary is making,” another source tells me. “He’s paying over 10% fees for those movies. That’s high relative to what’s usually given the people who put up the money. He wants to pay 8% for the 10 to 12 films Legendary will be fully financing.”
I’ve also learned that “Tull is looking to keep certain rights for the movies he finances, like his own Netflix deals”. And that Tull “also wants a producer deal for himself so he gets compensated from the studios separate from paying a distribution deal to the studios”. For movies he’s co-financing for the studio, he wants more involvement in the development process through shooting, post-production, marketing and distribution.
Of course, Tull may love or like almost everyone atop the studios, but not everyone loves or likes him. “He’s sitting in these studio meetings pitching his track record that Legendary-associated productions had $7+B grosses worldwide at the box office,” one source tells me. “But I’m thinking, ‘Aren’t those just the movies that were offered you or weren’t offered you? Are you joking?'” Says another source: “Thomas takes credit for stuff he hasn’t generated. He has that reputation.” Others don’t like how this drawn-out process is playing out in the press, suggesting that Tull likes the media attention. (“Are you joking?” one Tull insider guffawed to me. “That’s the opposite of reality. He won’t even read press on himself.”) Any deals can take months of painstaking negotiations and Tull recently has said he’ll make up his mind within 60 days. But “Tull is known to push bankers and lawyers out of the room when he wants something and to move pretty quickly,” an insider told me over the weekend.
Lionsgate is a very different studio since it settled out with Carl Icahn. The S&P this month raised Lionsgate’s debt rating To ‘B+‘, with the upgrade from ‘B’ following “the significant improvement in Lionsgate‘s credit metrics since it closed on the acquisition of Summit Entertainment in 2012”. After paying down some debt, and raking in big profits from movies including The Hunger Games, Lionsgate had borrowings 4.3 times its cash flow — a steep drop from last year when debt was more than 40 times. The ratio should improve, S&P says, as the studio releases additional Hunger Games films and expands its “more predictable television production revenues”. But here’s the rub: while the debt ratings company deems the outlook “stable”, it still considers “weak” Lionsgate’s exposure to “feature film risks”. That could be solved by a co-financing deal with Legendary.
Tull in the studio meetings talks candidly about what’s wrong with Legendary at Warner Bros. “How there’s a conflict of culture,” says one source. “Both cultures haven’t meshed,” echoes another. “And that it’s probably mutual.” That’s now further complicated by recent developments, with Robinov who had tension with Tull out at the movie studio, and former Warner Bros Television chief Bruce Rosenblum who was settled out by new Warner Bros boss Kevin Tsujihara now in at Legendary. Of course, Tull’s Legendary and Warner Bros have been in a 7-year film co-financing, co-production, and distribution relationship that ends this year.
Tull for awhile had a ‘get along, go along’ relationship with Warner Bros. Legendary usually had a 50% stake in the pictures it co-financed, and sometimes 33%. But a problem developed over the terms for The Dark Knight Rises. Legendary was in for 50% of the first 2 installments of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but then Warner Bros Pictures Group president Robinov limited Tull’s company to only a 25% stake in TDKR rather than give away a big piece of the profits which were huge. Tull wasn’t a happy camper and made it widely known.
Still, after his sitdown with media on June 18th, Tull had kind words for Tsujihara. “Kevin is a very smart guy, a straight shooter. From my perspective, whether we’re with them or not, Warner Bros has a brighter future under his leadership.” Two days later, I scooped the news that Robinov’s attorney Skip Brittenham officially notified Warner Bros that it is in breach of the movie mogul’s contract, and he wants to negotiate his exit.
Meanwhile, Tull still has several films coming out with Warner Bros including this summer’s Pacific Rim (75% Legendary financed) and this October’s The Seventh Son (100% financed) and 2014’s Godzilla (75% financed). Then there’s the surprising success of Tull’s solely financed passion project, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, in no small way due to the prowess of marketing czarina Sue Kroll. Her promotion to co-running Warner Bros Pictures with poduction czar Greg Silverman might make a difference.
But if a deal isn’t made, Warner Bros will rely more on its straight financing partner Village Roadshow which recently was refinanced with more than $1B. Or the studio could take on a slate deal, like the Dune one at Fox for 25% of every pic to level out the volatility for Warner Bros and a distribution fee on top of that. “They’re publicly in the market for that — and Thomas know that,” says a source. Or Warner Bros could adopt the Disney model and not take on any additional partnerships so the studio holds all the risk but keeps all the upside. But that would “require a bigger philosophical conversation”, I’m told.
Meanwhile Tull and Legendary have a big media event planned at the start of Comic-Con next month.