Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: A ticking clock situation is playing out at Paramount Pictures over the sci-fi classic Dune, one that is emblematic of how studio infatuation for branded fare has brought with it the added burden of pleasing rights holders who not only get gross deals but also a big say in how movies are made and released.

Rumors raced recently that Paramount would end four years of development on the Frank Herbert novel by putting the project in turnaround. I’m told that’s not true, but the studio will be done with Dune by next spring if it hasn’t firmed a production start by then. The rights holders won’t grant another option extension. Armed with a new Dune draft by Chase Palmer, the studio and producers Kevin Misher and Richard P. Rubinstein are going out to directors today to create a new movie out of the 1965 book that is reputed to be the biggest selling science fiction novel ever. Despite the ticking clock, Paramount is proceeding as cautiously as it would on any project that will carry a price-tag well north of $100 million. Unless studio brass is absolutely confident by the time the buzzer goes off, Paramount will kiss the project goodbye. It will forfeit the six figures it has paid in option costs and risk development costs, though it could recoup  some of the latter if another backer embraces the script Paramount paid Palmer to write.

These rights-holder chess games are playing out all over town. For instance: the start dates of Spider-Man, Ghost Rider and development of other Marvel Comics character reboots are influenced by the knowledge that those properties will revert to Marvel and its Disney owners if specific deadlines aren’t met; Superman is being raced into production by Warner Bros because certain rights revert back to the heirs of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 2013; Universal’s deals with board game owner Hasbro includes stiff multi-million dollar penalties if deadlines aren’t met, though the toymaker waived its right to a $5 million penalty payment when Universal pushed the start of the mega-budget Battleship back one full year because it was such a massive logistical undertaking.

Though the estate of Robert Ludlum has also put pressure on Universal to mount another installment of the cash cow Bourne Identity franchise, the estate showed flexibility recently after it tried to supplement its movie income with a series pilot deal with CBS that had CSI creator Anthony Zuiker to hatch Treadstone, a drama revolving around the shadowy government organization whose brainwashing techniques turned operatives like Jason Bourne into remorseless assassins. I’m told that before original Bourne Identity scribe Tony Gilroy would sign on to direct the spinoff movie The Bourne Legacy (which also treads on Treadstone mythology), the TV series had to be back-burnered or the movie wouldn’t have happened. No one’s saying exactly what will happen to the series, but between calls made by me and my colleague Nellie Andreeva (Nellie broke the TV deal story), we are confident a hot project has cooled.

Despite Dune‘s outsized book sales, Paramount can hardly be blamed for being careful. The 1965 book still sells, sequel books by the author’s son Brian and Kevin Anderson routinely hit the bestseller lists, there are videogames and a SciFi Channel miniseries was a big success. But from a feature standpoint, the book is indelibly linked to a 1984 David Lynch-directed flop, and there is that lingering memory of a giant desert worm and the rocker Sting, clad only in what seemed like a blue diaper, menacing star Kyle MacLachlan. The new film has been re-imagined but deals with the same trippy concept, an interplanetary battle for control of the desert planet Arrakis and its supply of the spice Melange. Those who ingest Melange live longer, have a prescient sense of awareness, and the substance is necessary for space travel.

Rubinstein and his company New Amsterdam made the successful Dune miniseries and he is the liaison to the rights holders, which are the Herbert estate and ABC. Director Peter Berg spent several years developing a script with writer Josh Zetumer, before Berg left to direct Battleship. Palmer then rewrote that script under the supervision of Taken helmer Pierre Morel. It appears that Morel has stepped off the project. He’ll be an exec producer, though Rubinstein — who said the estate and studio have to be in agreement on a director — likes Morel for the job.

Rubinstein said he and the estate will be is okay whether Paramount moves forward or not, because he and Misher have such a strong script now. But he makes it clear Paramount will have to be ready to fish or cut bait by next spring. “We don’t want to extend an option and watch the studio take seven years,” he said. “This is on a short tether. It’s a major book franchise, you can’t walk into a store and not see a shelf full of Dune books.”

Fredrik Malmberg, the Paradox CEO who controls the rights of the Robert E. Howard-directed Conan the Barbarian, knows first hand the frustrating of working at a studio’s pace. He went through seven years of futility at Warner Bros with directors as Larry and Andy Wachowski, Robert Rodriguez and original director John Milius, before shocking the studio in 2007 and refusing to give them another option. Instead, he put auctioned the property and made a 2007 deal with Millennium Films that paid $1 million a year. Three years later, the picture is wrapped. It’s a 3D film that cost more than $60 million, directed  by director Marcus Nispel and starring Jason Momoa as the title character. Millennium, which is releasing through Lionsgate, just set an August 19, 2011 date. Malmberg said he has no regrets over pulling back the property. While he believed Warner Bros was trying, he finally tired of having no answer to the question asked over and over by shareholders: where is the movie?

“I definitely think it was worth it,” Malmberg told me. “Studios are making bigger and bigger films, they are such huge gambles that it is hard to get a green light. If you are a brand holder, you have to be strong on the deal and strong as a producer, and be willing to move on unless you’ve got strict progress to production language. After waiting seven years at Warner Bros, we went to an indie sector that is eager to get into the branded space. You can have more say in the process than you usually get at a studio, unless you come in with a big financial component the way that Marvel did. Would this have been bigger at Warner Bros? Hindsight is always easy. I will tell you I’m happy. The movie looks great, it was the biggest bet Millennium has ever made on a film, and Lionsgate is very motivated. Ultimately, I had to answer to my investors and shareholders. I defended Warner Bros as long as I could, but I had to take back the property even though it was hard and there were bruised feelings.”