EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures has abruptly pulled the plug on Cartel, five weeks before the film was scheduled to begin production in Mexico City. I’m told there were concerns about the budget, the script, and the complexities of shooting a drug-related drama on location in Mexico. The Asger Leth-directed drama script was inspired by the 1993 Italian film La Scorta, and Josh Brolin was signed to play a man hellbent on protecting his son after his wife is brutally murdered after mixing in the world of Mexican drug cartels. Brian Grazer was producing for Imagine Entertainment, and Peter Craig wrote the script.
I was unable to find out right away whether Brolin or anyone else was pay or play, but clearly the studio spent money it will not get back. It is a tough break for a project that was once set to go with Sean Penn starring, until the actor bowed out of Cartel and other pictures to take a sabbatical for personal reasons.
The studio confirmed the move and released this statement: “Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment ceased pre-production of Cartel today. As much as we had hoped to begin filming this spring in Mexico City, the studio and its producing partners did not feel it was creatively ready to move forward under the timetable and budget we had established. We thank all of the filmmakers, cast and crew for their work during pre-production.”
The move comes after several adult-themed films for the studio fell flat at the box office, most recently Green Zone and Repo Men. Universal decision-makers Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley are being more careful about subject matter and budgets of films they put in production. This is the first Universal film to be halted in its tracks that I can remember since the studio scrapped the Antoine Fuqua-directed American Gangster, paying out pay or play deals to Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro. The studio–and Imagine’s Grazer–later put the film back together with Washington, Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe–and Cartel star Brolin–and the film was a hit. Universal isn’t the only studio scrutinizing its slate. Under Rich Ross, Disney has been unsparing in its evaluation of films, canceling pictures like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a Wild Hogs sequel, among others. Nobody likes to see a picture scrapped, but when so much pressure–and blame–is leveled on executives for films that go over budget or misfire, these kinds of difficult decisions are bound to become more commonplace.
I will report specifics as I get them.
UPDATE: I found out more. First of all, I have confirmed that Brolin did indeed have a pay or play deal. He’ll be paid his seven-figure salary, and will be okay, with Jonah Hex, the Woody Allen-directed You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, the Oliver Stone-directed Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps and the Coen Brothers-directed True Grit coming out. Unclear is whether Diego Luna–who was set as his nemesis–had a pay or play deal. I spoke with Universal co-chairman Langley. She would not comment on the financial complications of pulling the plug on a film that would have cost $40 million, but she said the studio agonized over the decision and hopes to find another project for both Brolin and Leth, the latter of whom was making his dramatic feature directing debut after getting on the map with the documentary Ghost of Cite Soleil. It sounds like the script needed to hit a narrow moving target, and missed.
“Two of the people who kept us going so long were Asger and Josh, and this decision was made tougher because we had such talented people involved, including Diego Luna and Catalina Sandina Moreno,” she said. “This was a difficult situation, managing a movie that aspired to be more of an action thriller than a drama, on a tight budget. Adam and I loved the idea of a movie set in the Mexican cartels, but certain aspects of the story didn’t enable us to give it the feeling that it got into the heart of the cartels. We had a fantastic character that Josh was going to play, but it was proving difficult to get him in a position to show that universe from the inside out.” Universal was in a similar position not that long ago, when Brad Pitt walked away from State of Play two before shooting. Faced with losing up to $20 million in costs, Universal pieced the film back together with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck,. In hindsight, the studio would have been better off cutting its losses. Langley acknowledged the decision-making process on films has gotten harder, all over town.
“In the risk-reward paradigm, Adam and I are committed to sticking closely to our original objectives, from development to the green light stage,” Langley told me. “When we say a budget number, we mean it. If the movie isn’t coming on or around that number and we don’t believe in the reasons why it isn’t, we will make a hard decision. Similarly, if we feel that way about the creative paradigm and it doesn’t meet our expectations, we will also make a hard decision.”