Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: KatzSmith Productions partners David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith have just signed a two-year first-look feature producing deal at Warner Bros. While rights are still being worked out, one of their first projects is expected to be a sequel to Beetlejuice, the 1988 Tim Burton-directed hit that starred Michael Keaton as a ghoul hired by a recently deceased couple to drive the new owners out of their house. Burton and Keaton made the movie while they were working on the studio’s first Batman film, which was released the following year. Beetlejuice also starred Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder and Geena Davis. The film will not be a remake; the intention is to reboot it by advancing the storyline of the original, which was done by The Geffen Company and Warner Bros.

The Warner Bros producing deal grew from the screenwriting work that Grahame-Smith did for Burton on Dark Shadows, currently in production with Johnny Depp heading the cast. While Warner Bros and other studios continue to cut back producing pacts, in KatzSmith the studio gets two partners who while just getting started producing features bring a lot of their own ideas to the table and are established writers and aspiring feature directors.

“We first got to know Seth through his fantastic work on Dark Shadows, and it immediately became a priority to expand our relationship with him,” said Warner Bros production president Greg Silverman. “Seth introduced us to David, who greatly impresses us with the vision for KatzSmith from the very first meeting. We firmly believe in their talents and are extremely excited to welcome them to the Warners family.” WME made KatzSmith’s deal.

Grahame-Smith will write two scripts as part of the deal, and it’s a distinct possibility that Beetlejuice 2 will be one of them. Katzenberg and Grahame-Smith tell me the model for their company is Bad Robot and Imagine Entertainment, where the principals generate many of the ideas that are turned into films. Katzenberg and Grahame-Smith met at CBS, where they worked on a series of humorous webisodes generated by Michael Cera and Clarke Duke. When Katzenberg (the son of DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg) wrote and directed a short film about a well-endowed high school nerd, Grahame-Smith produced it and they turned it into the MTV series The Hard Times of RJ Berger. They exec produced that scripted show, each directing episodes. Separately, Grahame-Smith wrote the bestselling novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and helped start a cottage industry in publishing where literary classics are dusted off and pollinated with supernatural elements. Grahame-Smith wrote the script for the latter film, which Timur Bekmambetov directed and which Fox releases June 22, 2012. Burton produced that film with Bekmambetov, and he hired Grahame-Smith for the Dark Shadows assignment at Warner Bros.

Before this deal, Grahame-Smith and Katzenberg were considered as co-directors by Lionsgate for the David O Russell-scripted Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before Craig Gillespie got the job, and Katzenberg is separately attached to direct the KatzSmith-produced From Mia With Love, a Fox comedy that the duo wrote with Kevin Chesley & Bryan Shukoff about three high school guys who are looking to lose their virginity before college, hire a Russian mail-order bride and find she has brought a lot of baggage. The film is something of an homage to Weird Science by John Hughes, one of their favorite filmmakers.

“We want to make big movies based on big ideas and inspired by the comedies we grew up loving,” the 35-year old Grahame-Smith told me. “The thing we like about Bad Robot and Imagine is that they are never pigeonholed because they do good work across a broad spectrum. We want to slowly grow into a company that follows in those footsteps.” Said Katzenberg, who’s 28: “We’re young, we’ve got a lot to learn, and we are going to have producers who help us on the first couple of big films. Warner Bros is a studio that gets behind its movies and is filmmaker-friendly.” The deal will allow them to buy material, but when possible they intend to self-generate, Katzenberg said. “We pride ourselves on coming up with a lot of our own ideas; about 90% of the projects we’ve generated in film and TV are ones we created and developed. The studio will help us bring our ideas to the finish line.”

They will give the studio first look at several projects they’re developing including We Three Kings, Grahame-Smith’s next novel, which is a large-scale telling of what the Three Wisemen from the Bible were actually doing in the manger that night (Grahame-Smith has turned in the book to Grand Central for an April 2012 publication, and he’s writing the script on spec with KatzSmith producing); Bryantology, in which a loser on the verge of losing his house exploits a tax loophole, invents a religion and names his home a tax-exempt place of worship. When the religion goes viral, followers show up on his doorstep and the hapless guy is suddenly a cult leader; Night of the Living, a stop-motion animated film that Grahame-Smith might script, with Burton producing along with KatzSmith. A town of peaceful monsters must learn how to fight when it is invaded by humans. KatzSmith also is producing an adaptation of Stuart Kaminsky’s novel series about 1940s Hollywood private eye Toby Peters, and Fire Teddy, a comedy script by Matthew Kaplan & Jason Leinwand that Katzenberg will direct. An underachieving nice guy is hired as a low-level employee at a corporate office. Ordered by his Machiavellian boss to fire Teddy, the newcomer can’t do it and becomes fast friends with Teddy through his futile attempts.