By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 6, 2011 at 1:20AM
Update: Deadline reports that pre-production has now been put on hiatus and the proposed September start date has been scrapped as Universal works to try and bring down the budget.
Universal hasn't had the easiest last few years. A slate of ambitious, expensive projects for 2009 and 2010 almost entirely underperformed at the box office including films like "Duplicity," "State of Play," "Land of the Lost," "The Wolfman," "Green Zone," "Robin Hood," "Scott Pilgrim Vs.The World" and "Your Highness." A more interesting line-up than some studios, to be sure, and some were good, some were bad, but all were more expensive than they should have been, and all failed to live up to expectations commercially. But it looks like things are changing.
The company's President of Production, Debbie Liebling, was fired on Monday, despite "Fast Five" registering the studio's biggest ever opening over the weekend, and it seems like the Vin Diesel actioner shows the way the company is heading under new owners Comcast -- their slate for 2012 includes the likes of "Battleship," "Ouija" and "Snow White and the Huntsman," as well as a reboot of their biggest franchise, "The Bourne Legacy." For better or worse, the days of the studio being a risk-taking company, letting auteurs do what they want, appear to be over. And to top it off, they look to be canning plans for what had looked to be one of the most ambitious projects in memory.
The studio had been moving full steam ahead on an expansive adaptation of "The Dark Tower," the epic series of novels by Stephen King that was going to span three movies, and two TV series, and were set to be helmed by Ron Howard, with scripts from his frequent collaborator Akiva Goldsman. And it had been a fairly trouble-free course so far, with "Battlestar Galactica" writer Mark Verheiden coming aboard to help on the television side, and Howard landing his top choice for the series' leading man: Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, who was set to land a colossal payday for the epic project.
But it seems as though the wheels have come off. Variety reports that budgetary issues have caused executives at Universal to get cold feet on the project, and serious discussions are about to begin regarding putting the project into turnaround. It's not entirely surprising. While 'Tower' has the potential to become the next "Lord of the Rings," with the huge revenue that that would involve, the source material is a far more difficult prospect than Tolkien's work -- a meta-fictional, post-modern meld of western, science fiction and fantasy with an underwhelming payoff of "Lost" proportions (indeed, that payoff is named as "creatively lacking" in the studio's eyes). If an expensive first film didn't work, a TV series would likely already be in production, causing immense embarrassment for all involved.
It's stressed that, right now, no decisions have been made. Indeed, The Hollywood Reporter ran a version of the same story in which Imagine denied that the project was in danger (although the story's since been removed, but is still available through syndication -- something fishy is definitely going on). And if the film is put into turnaround by Universal, it's possible that another studio would pick up the reins, with Warner Bros and Sony named as potential suitors by THR -- although it's worth noting that when the similarly risky Guillermo Del Toro project "At The Mountains of Madness" was also shitcanned by Universal, no other companies stepped up.
And a compromise could be reached on the budget -- after all, the studio has already set a prime, May 17, 2013 release date for the project, and pulling another tentpole out of the ether may be a headache (not that it'll stop them, necessarily). Fans of the books won't necessarily be heartbroken if this does stall the project permanently: the traditionally safe Howard & Goldsman weren't exactly viewed as great matches for the ambitious material. Either way, we imagine more solid news will come in soon.