EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures and NBC Universal Television Entertainment have closed a deal to turn Stephen King’s mammoth novel series The Dark Tower into a feature film trilogy and a network TV series, both of which will be creatively steered by the Oscar-winning team behind A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code.
Ron Howard has committed to direct the initial feature film, as well as the first season of the TV series that will follow in close proximity. Akiva Goldsman will write the film, and the first season of the TV series. Howard’s Imagine Entertainment partner Brian Grazer will produce, with Goldsman and the author.
When Deadline revealed in April that Howard, Goldman and Grazer planned to team with King, Universal was battling Warner Bros—home of Goldsman’s Weed Road–for the property. The multi-platform deal was so comprehensive, it took months to close. It will be announced later today by Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson, co-chairman Donna Langley, NBC Universal Television Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin, and NBC & Universal Media Studios Primetime Entertainment president Angela Bromstad, all of whom pulled it together.
I spoke with Goldsman and Howard, who have polled enough of their peers to be convinced what they are doing here has never been attempted: using a major studio’s film and TV platforms simultaneously to tell a story. It is reminiscent of when Peter Jackson directed three installments of The Lord of The Rings, back to back, so that they could be released in three consecutive years.
“What Peter did was a feat, cinematic history,” Howard told me. “The approach we’re taking also stands on its own, but it’s driven by the material. I love both, and like what’s going on in TV. With this story, if you dedicated to one medium or another, there’s the horrible risk of cheating material. The scope and scale call for a big screen budget. But if you committed only to films, you’d deny the audience the intimacy and nuance of some of these characters and a lot of cool twists and turns that make for jaw-dropping, compelling television. We’ve put some real time and deep thought into this, and a lot of conversations and analysis from a business standpoint, to get people to believe in this and take this leap with us. I hope audiences respond to it in a way that compels us to keep going after the first year or two of work. It’s fresh territory for me, as a filmmaker.”
Considered King’s answer to JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy, The Dark Tower revolves around Roland Deschain, the last living member of a knightly order of gunslingers, and humanity’s last hope to save a civilization that will crumble unless he finds the Dark Tower. Howard and Goldsman describe the world as “an alternate Americana, one part post-apocalyptic, one part Sergio Leone.”
“Akiva said, ‘Stephen will not let go of it, but it’s like nothing else you’ve ever read,’” Howard recalled. “It was frustrating because it’s one of those works where you read it, and then at odd times, the imagery and sensations just pop up in your mind. This is going to be an amazing life experience for us, trying to do justice to the story and the universe.”
King granted an option—for $19, a number relevant to the plotline–to JJ Abrams and his Lost partners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. They never cracked the sprawling plotline and all the characters. Goldsman pounced when the rights were available, but saw the same problems until Howard suggested using film and TV platforms. Though Howard famously grew up on a TV screen on The Andy Griffith Show, he hasn’t directed TV since the early 80s, but is eager to return. It seems hard to fathom he’d direct a full season’s worth of episodes, but that is the early plan, and who says they have to do 22 to create that bridge to the next film?
The plan is to start with the feature film, and then create a bridge to the second feature with a season of TV episodes. That means the feature cast—and the big star who’ll play Deschain—also has to appear in the TV series before returning to the second film. After that sequel is done, the TV series picks up again, this time focusing on Deschain as a young gunslinger. Those storylines will be informed by a prequel comic book series that King was heavily involved in plotting. The third film would pick up the mature Deshain as he completes his journey. They will benefit from being able to use the same sets cast and crew for the movie and TV, which could help contain costs on what will be a financially ambitious undertaking.
“We will certainly be looking to maximize both creative and fiscal opportunities by creating one enterprise that encompasses TV and movies,” Goldsman said. “Some of the shooting will likely encompass both platforms, and that has never been done before. It’s thrilling, we feel like kids in a candy story.”
Goldsman is writing, and Howard said he and Grazer have cleared the decks to do this quickly. “I’m finishing The Dilemma, and then I don’t have anything scheduled and I plan to work hard on this with Akiva and Brian,” Howard told me. “We will refine our take on the feature and TV shows. We have a clear view of what we want to do, and we’re lucky to have a company with the nerve to back us up on this venture.”
Howard, Grazer and Goldsman will exec produce the TV series for Universal Media Studios. Kerry Foster will exec produce the first film for Weed Road, along with Imagine’s Todd Hallowell and Erica Huggins.