Is Terminator: Salvation Director McG About to Put a Bullet in the Head of the Hollywood System?


“You and me are fucking done professionally!!”:
John Connors (
Christian Bale) and Terminator

From looking at his movies—mostly the Charlie’s Angels ones—and music videos—like the Offspring’s “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”—I’d kinda assumed that Michigan-born director Joseph McGinty Nichol, better known as McG, was sorta shiny, fast, and shallow, like his cinema.

I think I owe this guy an apology. In the May edition of Fast Company, McG’s cover profile (“Hollywood’s Rogue cov135Mogul”), right, renders his particulate regard for every aspect of the upcoming Terminator, something on even greater display in this WIRED piece. It explains that he’s directing both a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea prequel and the movie version of the hit Broadway show Spring Awakening. It shakes his $2 billion money tree, including hit TV shows like The O.C., Supernatural, and Chuck.

What makes the piece really ill, though, is that it reveals McG’s ambitious and visionary business independence streak, noting that

as McG accumulates money, power, and, now, artistic credibility in Hollywood, he has become a genial triple threat to business as usual. “Because I’m protected by Terminator and 20,000 Leagues in the most conventional way, I have the freedom to ultimately control Spring Awakening,” he says. “I can decide what to do with the production and how much it’s going to cost. I can stop doing the dance with Warner and the other studios — whom I adore, but the process always ends up with 17 development executives who constantly want to ‘fix’ it, or say they already have a hot-teen-sex coming-of-age musical in the fourth quarter.”

72810289TT028_Warner_Bros_PIs director’s director McG, right, talking about a H’wood takeover?

McG is hardly the first to threaten this coup. The notion of unlocking the studios’ monopoly is one that seems to be in perpetual turnaround. Three years ago, Steven Soderbergh made noise about subverting the system by digitally distributing his low-budget film Bubble, and doing so simultaneously on big screens, DVD, and pay per view. But McG isn’t playing around with a shelved film-school piece: He’s going to test the system with a super-hot property.

“The simplest expression of the idea is to raise my own money for Spring Awakening and do it all independently and just cut a straightforward distribution deal with an existing media conglomerate,” he says. “This way, I retain an 85% ownership and can do it my way.” As of press time, McG hadn’t finalized the exact details on how he is going to finance Spring Awakening, but his options are many. He’s mulling partnering with Apple or Nokia for an exclusive distribution deal through the Apple Store or Ovi, respectively. Or he might take a page out of the studio model and finance it through the presale of foreign rights. Or tap his network of fabulously rich contacts.

Like most true revolutionaries, McG doesn’t necessarily foresee obliteration of the present order, but a new synthesis. Studios, he believes,

3438195009_95253d68fa_owill still have a place funding their big-budget properties like the Harry Potters and Pirates of the Caribbeans. (And McG says he’ll gladly continue to direct for the studios if the material excites him.) But when it comes to movies with manageable budgets and the potential for huge payoffs — Slumdog Millionaire, perhaps Spring Awakening — McG’s friendly insurrection could ripple across the industry. During an earlier meeting, he had been remarkably open about how much he gets paid for his various projects. As he ran through the grosses, however, I realized he wasn’t bragging about how much money he makes but revealing how much he was missing out on. As a hypothetical, assume Spring Awakening performs as well as Slumdog, that the $25 million movie grosses at least $300 million worldwide. In the old payout scheme (using the 20,000 League deal as a yardstick), McG earns his $8 million fee, against 7% of the gross, or $14 million, for a total of $22 million; after production costs, the studio takes $253 million. Under the McG plan, the studio gets $45 million for its distribution services; after costs, his cut comes in at $230 million, minus the expense of paying back any investors. He can then take that money to make 10 more movies of the same scale — or start hiring other directors to make them for him. Either way, the making of a single film has expanded his power in the market exponentially.

If and when he does it — and he certainly seems determined to try — McG’s ability to leverage his own various forms of capital could push him over the invisible line between talent and titan. “That’s how you create a media company,” he tells me. “In an online era where movie houses have transitioned to digital projectors with cables sticking out the back, to fund a dinosaur studio system does not make sense. We as filmmakers are able to hit return on our computers and send prints the world over just like sending a blanket email. That is a revolution.”

His ultimate vision, he says, is

to create a new United Artists and a legacy that puts the people who create content at the top,” he says. “I would partner with J.J. Abrams and Danny Boyle and Spike Jonze and David Fincher and provide the vehicle where we can make movies our own way, distribute the movies our own way, and take a leap of faith that people are going to want to watch them. I believe it is content that drives the audience, not some multimedia conglomerate.”

“McG is a guy who is always going to be hungry and push limits,” says Abrams, who directed the new Star Trek film. “Smaller films are going to be realized by smaller homegrown entities and the studios have to acknowledge the fact that legitimate movies will increasingly be done by people they don’t control — and distributed in ways that circumvent what they do.”

Repeat: “We as filmmakers are able to hit return on our computers and send prints the world over just like sending a blanket email. That is a revolution.” Man: I was already gonna see McG’s and Abrams’ movies. But if they’re talkin’ about doing to the studios what Napster did to the music business, I’m buyin’ tickets to each of their joints, twice.



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