Behind Warner Bros.’ Olive Branch to Top Talent

The Warner Bros. business affairs department did not have a very relaxing holiday break. The group was working through the end of the year with the aim of placating big-name talent that was kept in the dark about the Dec. 3 reveal outlining plans for the entirety of the studio’s 2021 slate to be released day-and-date domestically in theaters and on HBO Max. One such negotiation was with Denzel Washington, who leads The Little Things, out Jan. 29, the first of the 17 titles to be released under the day-and-date HBO Max model. Washington’s feature contract is said to be a $20 million fee plus backend, leading insiders to assume he will be netting a far bigger payday than the $10 million that Gal Gadot received as Wonder Woman 1984 went to streaming Dec. 25. “Denzel will never negotiate off his deal and a really strong backend,” says an executive at a rival studio, who adds: “People are going to be very happy with their deals.” While there are few stars who can command as big a payday as Washington’s, the sheer number of talent deals that now require some sort of bonus payment in light of WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar’s exhibition exercise is costing Warners big, sources say. Each talent agency is managing its own array of deals, with CAA alone handling 55. Seemingly no formula has been adopted by the studio yet, but at least one proposal has been sent to reps. According to sources, a Warners draft proposal outlined that talent making less than $4 million will be paid an additional 25 percent of their salary upon the release of the film as an advance against box office bonuses. Anyone making $4 million and over the advance would be getting 40 percent of their salary. Moreover, the box office performance thresholds tied to the bonuses would be halved. And regardless of the film’s run at the global box office, all deferments would be honored upon the film’s release. Even with domestic theatrical closures, the thought among some reps is that the new halved worldwide box office thresholds will be easier to reach than pre-pandemic bonus benchmarks. But, as a new surge of COVID-19 cases sees countries implementing new shutdowns, the state of exhibition is in constant flux. The proposal is not a one-size-fits-all fix that can be transposed onto every deal. And there are filmmakers holding out hope for a windowed theatrical release. Legendary, which is behind 2021 Warners titles Godzilla vs. Kong and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, is still hashing it out with the studio.

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