UA: Was It Suicide or Murder?

What I forecast about Paula Wagner and her future at United Artists has come to pass. MGM could push her out as UA’s CEO but couldn’t fire her because she was, and will remain, a co-owner. Nor will Tom Cruise’s longtime producing partner’s exit affect his relationship with UA, where he, too, remains a co-owner. (Tom and Paula together own about 30 percent of the studio; MGM owns the remainder.)

The behind-the-scenes rupture took place because of Wagner’s inability to pull the trigger on projects that began threatening the $500 million financing from Merrill Lynch. Sources told me UA was way behind on the timetable dictated by its financing. The only solution was for MGM to immediately green-light two UA motion pictures.

Wagner hired her own personal spin-meister to tell reporters that this was MGM usurping UA’s independent authority so that MGM boss Harry Sloan could finally get his hands on UA’s money, since he hasn’t been able to score financing of his own.

But UA has been unraveling for the past month. The prez of worldwide marketing and publicity, Dennis Rice, departed in mid-July. On August 11, veteran studio executive and film/TV producer Jeff Kleeman left his position as EVP of production at UA after less than a year on the job.

That meant UA was now populated by only Cruise, Wagner, Don Granger and a few junior execs. But UA never established itself as anything other than a vanity deal for Cruise, with Wagner at the helm — which is exactly what I said this would be when their takeover of UA was announced November 2, 2006. They made just two films, both starring Tom — Lions for Lambs, which bombed, and Valkyrie, whose release was delayed again and again amid bad buzz, and which now comes out December 26. (Yes, when I think of Christmas, I think of Nazis …) So UA was moribund. And now it has imploded.

Save Us, Watchmen!

A federal judge has denied a Warner Bros. motion to dismiss 20th Century Fox’s legal battle over the rights to develop, produce and distribute a film based on the graphic novel Watchmen. This is huge Hollywood news because Warner Bros. was planning to release its highly anticipated big-screen version of the popular comic book written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons in March 2009. Fox was seeking to enjoin Warner Bros. from going forward with the project, and U.S. District Court Judge Gary Allen Feess on August 15 felt Fox had sufficient reason to state its claims for both copyright infringement and interference under a byzantine series of contracts.

This stunning development could imperil Warner Bros.’ future movie slate and break the hearts of geeks worldwide, who thrilled at the footage of Watchmen, screened at the recent Comic-Con. No wonder Warner Bros. Pictures just moved back the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to July 17, 2009.

CW’s Fate Is 90210

I broke the news that a contract controversy stopped Tori Spelling from joining that so-called “edgy, contemporary spinoff” of the ’90s hit 90210 airing on the network starting September 2. Tori, who’s now an Oxygen reality-show star, was hired to reprise her role as fashion boutique owner Donna Martin for just “$10,000 to $20,000” per episode. But then Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty were signed for “$35,000 to $50,000” a show. When Tori found out, she got pissed and pulled out. Hollywood will see soon whether this is a really smart or really stupid decision by The CW’s boss, Dawn Ostroff, who was on the verge of being fired in May. But she bought herself more time on the back of 90210.

As a source explained, “Since Gossip Girl opened with a 3.1 for women 18 to 34 and still can’t get ratings, then 90210 has got to open with a ‘4’ in front of it if The CW and Dawn are going to survive into 2009.”

Party Like It’s 2007

Say you’re a downsized Hollywood studio that recently laid off almost all its employees. Well, if you’re New Line, you throw the annual summer staff party for those remaining few. Ex–New Liners are e-mailing me that the pool party on August 21 at Skybar will cost $35,000 and “all 48 employees will be there to swim in the blood of the 550 employees who were massacred.” (Hey, they have a right to be bitter because their severance was less than they were told it would be.)

I’m assured it was an “agonizing” decision by Toby Emmerich and Richard Brenner whether to hold another of the fancy parties for which the studio used to be famous. So the studio lowered the budget, telling me that the price tag is only “one-third” of what laid-off employees claim.

Older TV Writers Win First Settlement

I broke the news that TV writers age 40 and older charging ageism had settled with ICM for $4.5 million, paid for by the 10-percentery’s insurance. But here’s what I really love: The consent decree says ICM must now provide anti-age-discrimination training to all its personnel, and even take attendance.

ICM also must pay $50,000 to sit on an independent task force to examine its representation practices, and to participate conditionally in a job-relief program that will promote the top 25 percent of older TV writers on the basis of script evaluations by a neutral panel of qualified experts.

So now the agents are the older writers’ bitches. What a great day for the 10,000 TV writers who’ll benefit. Still unresolved are the other class actions in Los Angeles Superior Court against the major TV networks and production studios and agencies. Said Steve Sprenger of Sprenger + Lang, lead trial counsel for the plaintiffs, “We still have a lot of work ahead of us to get these older writers the programmatic and monetary relief they deserve.”

Changing Reality of Reality TV

First, one of TV’s most high-profile execs gets fired by CBS. Even though Ghen Maynard, EVP for alternative programming and entertainment content for new media at CBS Paramount Network Entertainment Group, convinced boss Les Moonves to take a chance on Survivor, which changed the landscape of unscripted content and product placement on TV and helped CBS achieve its turnaround.

Then, big reality producer Ryan Seacrest hires his William Morris agent of eight and a half years, Adam Sher, to run his Ryan Seacrest Productions. Now watch every Hollywood major agency make a pitch for him and his very hot reality, radio and TV, advertising, restaurant, fashion businesses — which all dwarf his American Idol hosting gig.

Then United Talent’s Michael Camacho took back his big-deal client Mike Fleiss, The Bachelor reality kingpin, from CAA last week. Revenge is sweet because Camacho was fired as head of CAA’s Alternative TV department over a bit of Oprah intrigue. CAA’s Richard Lovett and Bryan Lourd put “a full-court press” on Fleiss to stay, even promising him film financing, none of which materialized.

Young Hollywood’s Agency Whores

There’s more 10-percentery swapping than cell phone switching among Young Hollywood. It turned out Chace Crawford wanted to get a lot more money from The CW, so he just left ICM and hired CAA. Trouble is, CW topper Dawn Ostroff isn’t budging.

That’s what happens when an actor is part of an ensemble cast. (Oops, he’s suddenly Gossip Girl’s Written-Out Guy.) And the tween/teen-movie and TV star Amanda Bynes made the rounds of Hollywood agencies with her dentist father before choosing William Morris. Bynes was previously at UTA, then left for CAA and decided to switch 10-percenteries yet again.

LA Weekly