Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: DreamWorks has thrown in the towel on Southpaw, the boxing drama that has Eminem returning to the screen for the first time since 2002′s 8 Mile, and Antoine Fuqua directing a script by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. The plan was to start in January. DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider, who worked closely with Eminem and his team on 8 Mile while she ran Universal, basically gave the project back to the filmmakers to set up elsewhere and that’s what they are trying to do. Maybe DreamWorks was concerned the market is crowded with  brawler films after The Fighter and the upcoming Gavin O’Connor-directed mixed martial arts drama Warrior, or maybe the studio’s cautious after its big bet on Cowboys & Aliens didn’t pay off. (I’m sure it’s coincidence that Snider once unplugged the Fuqua-directed version of American Gangster before putting the picture back together with Ridley Scott). But given the appetite of a crop of distributors looking for wide release product, I’d be surprised if this one, which is fully packaged, doesn’t get off the canvas quickly.

DreamWorks took Southpaw off the table as a pitch late last year, with Eminem attached to play a fast-rising welterweight boxer who brawls his way to the title, only to see his world crash down around him due to a tragedy. The drama is about his fight to reclaim past glory for himself and his young daughter. Sutter told me at the time that the project was partly inspired by Eminem’s own struggles that inform his music and mirror his life. “In a way, this is a continuation of the 8 Mile story, but rather than a literal biography, we are doing a metaphorical narrative of the second chapter of his life,” Sutter said. “He’ll play a world champion boxer who really hits a hard bottom, and has to fight to win back his life for his young daughter. At its core, this is a retelling of his struggles over the last five years of his life, using the boxing analogy. I love that the title refers to [Eminem] being a lefty, which is to boxing what a white rapper is to hip hop; dangerous, unwanted and completely unorthodox. It’s a much harder road for a southpaw than a right-handed boxer.” Fuqua, a former Golden Gloves boxer, joined the project later on.

I wrote plenty of stories about how close The Fighter got to being KO’d when Brad Pitt and then Matt Damon and Darren Aronofsky dropped out and when Paramount kicked the picture loose because of its $50 million budget. It came together nicely in the low $20 million range, financed by Ryan Kavanaugh and distributed through Paramount. The principals traded upfront for upside — producer/star Mark Wahlberg waived almost all his salary for a backend, and David O Russell and Christian Bale did too — and those deals paid off after The Fighter grossed $193 million worldwide and earned seven Oscar nominations, and wins for Bale and Melissa Leo. Southpaw‘s studio budget was in the $30 million range but would likely cost less if it was done on a model similar to the one used by The Fighter.