The Life of 'Splice,' The Unlikeliest Major Studio Summer Release

splicemoviestillThe Vincenzo Natali-directed Splice opens this weekend with the distinction of being arguably the biggest acquisition to ever emerge from the Sundance Film Festival, based on Dark Castle’s  $35 million P&A commitment.

No matter how much business the horror film scares up, it is worth looking back at a quest for domestic distribution that overcame cease and desist letters from Fox lawyers worried about the genetically-manufactured creature’s similarity to the Na’vi creatures of Avatar, and then survived nearly being dumped into a SciFi Channel premiere. Instead, Warner Bros just opened it on 2450 screens.

The track toward production began after Guillermo del Toro, Don Murphyavatar-movie1 and Susan Montford cornered Natali at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. They’d been fans of his no-budget film Cube, told him they would godfather Natali’s next scripted horror effort, and walked away with the Frankenstein-esque script Splice, and they set off to find distribution. It looked like Fox Atomic was going to finance the film right away. Not only didn’t the filmmakers get a deal, they received the stern cease and desist letter from Fox legal affairs exec Robert Cohen. Deadline got a copy of the missive.

“You can…imagine our dismay when we saw the design for the Dren character in Splice, which is substantially similar to the alien creatures in Avatar and learned that Todd Cherniawsky, a member of the Splice design team, has knowledge of the Avatar designs because of his prior employment as an assistant art director on Avatar,” Cohen wrote. “The Avatar infringement results primarily from the use of a tail on the humanoid figure, as well as other facial characteristics that are unique to Avatar. It is difficult to tell from the Dren drawings what other problems might exist, such as whether the height of the Splice Dren is comparable to the height of the Avatar aliens…We are aware that you received a note from Jon Landau that Mr. Cameron and he felt that the design issue would not be a concern because the projects are so different. While we respect their opinion, we feel differently and are concerned. However, Mr. Landau’s suggestion that you make design modifications to remove the elements we regard as infringing is one which we strongly suggest your company follow to avoid what otherwise will be a significant legal confrontation with Fox.”

The filmmakers high-tailed out of there, but left Dren’s tail intact. They enlisted producer Steve Hoban, who helped put together a $27 million budget, mainly through presales, Canadian tax deals and backing from French company Gaumont, which was on the hook for about $4 million by the end of production. There was optimism that the film starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley would create a bidding battle after its midnight Sundance screening. Sure enough, sales agent CAA got a private investor willing to put up around $20 million in P&A in a deal that was to involve the Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group and Apparition’s Bob Berney, who was held in high esteem by del Toro because of Pan’s Labyrinth. Then an article ran in a local Minneapolis paper in which Apparition financier Bill Pohlad disavowed the project. That deal fizzled. Said an insider: “Why go to a company where the financial guy is publicly dissing your film?”

As decent deals got made for other potential Sundance breakout films like the Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried and the Julianne Moore-Annette Bening comedy The Kids Are All Right, a feeling of desperation was creeping in for Splice, despite strong audience reaction at festival screenings. One distributor recalled that anyone on the hill could have acquired the film for a $12 million P&A commitment. Gaumont even had talks with the SciFi  Channel to make the film a network premiere, which would have covered the French company’s risk but killed a  theatrical release. Undaunted, CAA kept screening the film post-festival. Dark Castle exec Steve Richards saw it, and then Joel Silver and former Rogue president Andrew Rona got involved. They saw the potential of a wide release and made a deal that not only dwarfed other pacts at the last Sundance, but had a P&A commitment that rivaled any film to emerge from Park City.

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