EXCLUSIVE: It’s the end of a modern Hollywood era, the quiet finish to one of the most long-term, big-time, noisy, up and down, and ultimately dysfunctional relationships between a film producer and a movie studio. I have learned that Joel Silver will no longer have a production deal at Warner Bros at the end of 2012. His Silver Pictures also won’t be housed on the studio’s Burbank lot after then — famously in the offices built for Frank Sinatra in 1963 — which is why the producer right now is looking for buildings in Santa Monica and Venice Beach. So what happened? I can tell you that the tipping point came during Christmas 2011 when Silver began loudly complaining around Hollywood, and using surrogates to grouse directly to showbiz media, about Warner Bros’ handling of Sherlock Holmes 2‘s release. Silver was a producer on the sequel, which was playing catch up to that holiday’s runaway No. 1, Paramount’s Mission: Impossible 4. Silver and his surrogates bitched about everything, from the studio’s marketing and distribution to the fact that Warner Bros shouldn’t have paired a first glimpse of its hot The Dark Knight Rises footage with M:I4‘s IMAX release. They claimed the move goosed M:I4 grosses to the detriment of Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows. (It had PR value but proved revenue neutral.) They claimed Sherlock Holmes 2 star Robert Downey Jr was so furious he would never work again for the studio. (Not true.) Warner Bros movie chief Jeff Robinov felt the Sherlock Holmes 2 blame game orchestrated by Silver was destabilizing the studio. “Jeff said to Joel, ‘You’re panicking as you always do, blaming everyone, infuriating everyone. Internally and externally you’re creating problems for us.”
As for pairing the TDKR footage with M:I4, even a rival studio exec told me Warner Bros’ “challenge as always is balancing two big heavyweights: Christopher Nolan and the filmmakers for Sherlock. That commitment to M:I4 was made through IMAX eight months earlier. And then Paramount moved up the date. What Joel did was to paint a picture of Sherlock Holmes 2 as a failure, calling up agencies bitching, stirring up the town against Warner Bros by claiming marketing had not eventized the movie. Yes, M:I4 had BMW spots with Tom Cruise. But what was a period film like Sherlock Holmes 2 going to do – show a horse and carriage? In fact it was a successful movie.”
That’s when Robinov became fed up with Silver’s bad boy behavior that was translating now, and had translated for years, into a series of betrayals. (I understand that Robinov at that point hadn’t even heard that Joel went to Jeff’s No. 2 executive Greg Silverman and baited him, “Jeff sucks. You should have his job.”) Once the relationship soured, the issue now was how to avoid a bad situation devolving into a bad breakup by publicly embarrassing Joel. So Robinov used his own surrogates to make Silver aware that the studio was about to “address the economics” of his Warner Bros deal if — and that was a big “if” — it was renewed at the end of the year. Which Silver correctly interpreted as meaning a drastic reduction in his already greatly reduced contract terms even though the studio had not yet presented any details. Robinov counted on Silver imploding, which is exactly what happened. The producer and Robinov met on January 10th to discuss their up-and-downs. “Joel talked, and Jeff mostly heard him out,” one of my sources explains. Silver insiders say Joel came in and admitted he’d “lost his cool” over Sherlock 2 and “was sorry” and had spoken both too soon and out of turn because the movie wound up doing about what the original did domestically but better internationally. Then Silver waxed philosophic to the mogul: ”Maybe it’s time for me to go. I don’t fit the new mold. Maybe I don’t belong.”
And then a few weeks ago Silver met with Robinov again and said he didn’t want to stay if the studio wouldn’t reup him under the terms he wanted. As one of my sources explains, “Joel put Jeff in a position where it was impossible to let Joel stay. Said another: “Understanding the extent to which his working relationship with Jeff had become estranged is the reason Joel doesn’t want to be at the studio anymore.”
The end of 2012 is his departure date. After then, Silver is free to set up a first look deal somewhere else. Some might wonder why Joel at age 59 doesn’t take early retirement from the movie biz and go out on top. It’s well known in Hollywood that the lavish-living Silver has relied on a longstanding series of loans from Warner Bros by taking advances against the money due him on his movies. Once he leaves Warner Bros, Silver must repay those loans. Will another studio be willing to let him borrow in an arrangement which Silver’s lawyer Bert Fields once described as “a running account between them”. The best guess is Universal and his close friend Ron Meyer whose daughter is an executive at Silver Pictures. But then Universal, like all the movie studios, has dialed back overhead.
Silver has been responsible for billions in ticket sales for Warner Bros over the years — including four Lethal Weapon movies (the first released in 1987), The Matrix films, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes 2 – and is leaving the studio a legacy of big action hits since he started Silver Pictures in 1985. The relationship went both ways. In 2006 Robinov as then president of production sought the producer’s advice on how to butch up the studio’s marketing of Superman Returns mired in gay buzz.
But then Silver delivered one of Warner Bros’ worst flops, the expensive $160M-costing Speed Racer, in 2008. Because his personality had created so many enemies over the years, most of Hollywood was ecstatic by his failure, and rumors spread that Warner Bros was supposedly cancelling or at the very least not renewing his deal there which still had a year and a half to go. (As he told me at the time: “I know there’s a long list of Hollywood types right now kinda elated about that. But Warner Bros is my family, I’ve been there for 22 years, and we’re fine. But I can’t stop the slings and arrows of the world around me.”)
Cementing their relationship, Robinov rescued Silver and, despite Speed Racer‘s tanking, put him on as a producer for the already-well-into-development Sherlock Holmes that same summer. (“It wasn’t just a mercy fuck. There was a history there,” a source said, referring to Silver’s close ties to Downey and his producer wife). Sherlock when released in 2009 was a big satisfying hit for both Silver and Warner Bros. Robinov extended Silver’s deal but also cut it in half.
Robinov then decided to reexamine the gross profit participations of all the DC Comics superheroes being developed as Warner Bros movies. Most of the superhero projects were taken back by the studio, and DC Entertainment created to house them. Silver lost Wonder Woman and began to grumble loudly that his by then 10 years of developing her was history. But Silver was allowed to continue bringing low profile The Losers to the big screen under his Dark Castle banner. In 2010, Warner Bros announced that Alan Horn was departing and Robinov taking his place. Silver seemed incredibly secure. But the studio was frustrated that it had to market and distribute his low-brow and often low-grossing Dark Castle pictures.
Then, in 2010, The New York Times profiled Silver and asked, “How does a larger-than-life, free-spending producer fit into a movie business that has been tightening up — and cutting some of its more grandiose characters down to size?” The article spelled out Silver’s financial difficulties and borrowing arrangement with the studio, and looked at the lawsuit filed by Silver and attorney Bert Fields against Goldman Sachs over Dark Castle. Worse, the article stirred up talk about fissures in the Robinov-Silver relationship. ”Warner, at least in years past, has ignored Mr. Silver at its own peril. Six years ago, Jeff Robinov, then a top production executive at the studio, was hospitalized after a motorcycle accident. As he recovered, Mr. Robinov heard that Mr. Silver was exaggerating the severity of the accident — and telling people that Mr. Robinov was unable to function. When Mr. Robinov asked Mr. Silver why he was doing this, the producer said it was because the Warner executive hadn’t been returning his calls promptly.” Robinov better watch his back now.
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