Studios cling to their intellectual properties with an iron grip. So how in the world did MGM lose the rights to the video game franchise “Tomb Raider,” as TheWrap exclusively reported last week, just as the studio was changing hands to their new owners at Amazon?
MGM had a May 1 deadline for when principal photography needed to begin on a “Tomb Raider” sequel, according to the deal signed by the studio in 2013. But insiders who spoke to TheWrap cited a large production budget on the latest version of writer-director Misha Green’s script that delayed plans, along with disagreements over the script between the star, Alicia Vikander, and Green.
The subsequent loss of “Tomb Raider” has left everyone involved with the project disappointed — and pointing fingers.
“MGM moved with no levels of urgency,” one frustrated executive on the project said, adding that even as the deadline loomed, MGM was eyeing a production start for 2023. “They had a window they missed… Theoretically, this was an MGM f— up.”
The “they” in that equation would be MGM Motion Picture Group Chairman Mike De Luca and President Pam Abdy, who were shepherding the project, but ended up exiting their roles just days before the May 1 deadline. Still, De Luca and Abdy were at the studio for only two years, and the project was nowhere near ready to move forward in 2020 when they arrived.
An individual with knowledge of their thinking told TheWrap that the fault lay with previous studio leadership, “years of useless development” that didn’t satisfy the studio or producer Graham King. The studio was previously run by Jonathan Glickman. Glickman declined to comment for this story.
The new studio chiefs tried to jump start the project with a new script by Green, but Vikander had problems with it and “the clock ran out” while she and the writer-director were in discussions, according to the individual.
“There was a pre-negotiated ticking clock that had been agreed to, and there was no way to rescue it in time,” the individual said. The individual added that MGM had “asked the rights holders for more time but their patience had run out.” The original rights were held by game developer Square Enix.
However, a veteran Hollywood insider disputed that two years wasn’t enough to meet the deadline. “Certainly two years is long enough to get a movie to a starting date if it’s a tentpole,” said this veteran. “Films have gotten there faster in the past. “
Hollywood insiders were shocked that MGM would lose the rights to such an important franchise.
“As a general matter, it is very surprising to see any franchise movie come to market because of a lapse of an option or a lapse in the rights,” Nick Soltman, a partner with Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump Holley, said. “Normally, the option is tied to the commencement of principal photography by a certain date. It can also be tied to a green light, which would require principal actors engaged and maybe an approved script and approved budget. It depends on the studio, what it qualifies as a green light. It stands to reason that some or all of that was missing here.”
The timing of the project’s deadline coincided with a change of leadership at MGM and that may have played a role. Many were surprised when De Luca and Abdy exited their roles in late April after MGM was acquired earlier this year by Amazon in an $8.5 billion deal. De Luca was said to be leaving the studio on his own accord, but many questioned why the executive, who only joined in 2020, would want to leave — unless Amazon was forcing the move.
The deadline to start production on “Tomb Raider” was just days later, on May 1.
An individual with knowledge of the production said that prior to Green coming aboard, another director, Ben Wheatley, had delivered a more traditional action movie script with Vikander still attached to star.
In January 2021, the new studio chiefs handed control of the movie over to “Lovecraft Country” showrunner Green, who would have been making her directorial debut. She submitted a script that the studio was committed to making but the project had become far more expensive, the individual with knowledge of the project said.
Representatives for MGM and Green didn’t return TheWrap’s requests for comments. De Luca and Abdy also didn’t respond to requests for comments.
Multiple studios are now engaged in a bidding war for the “Tomb Raider” film rights, though without Vikander attached as hero Lara Croft. Those who spoke to TheWrap said the interested parties include Netflix, which has an animated “Tomb Raider” series in the works, and Warner Bros., which would be ironic should it land with new film heads De Luca and Abdy after they previously controlled the “Tomb Raider” project at MGM.
An executive with knowledge of the project said Amazon would be likely to bid as well.
2018’s “Tomb Raider” was by no means a box office smash, earning $275 million at the global box office, but it was hardly a failure either and performed fairly in the home market after its theatrical release. And the rights to the long-running and wildly popular adventure video game franchise is still an attractive piece of IP.
The future of “Tomb Raider” as a film franchise, though, may be uncertain for other reasons. After the rights reverted to game developer Square Enix (now owned by Embracer Group), the gaming company struck a deal with producer King and his GK Films to rep the IP and shop the rights. This came after King had originally acquired the “Tomb Raider” rights from Square Enix in 2011. But King only holds the film rights to the “Tomb Raider” property and not to adaptations in any other medium, and he doesn’t have a contractual connection to the original movie adaptations with Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft from back in 2001 and 2003.
It leaves King with a short window of potentially just weeks to sell the movie and find it a new home.
Complicating things even further is Embracer Group‘s $300 million deal to acquire Square Enix’s Western branch in Montreal in May. With “Tomb Raider” one of the gaming company’s prized IP, it could be very unusual should a deal on a new, long-term film franchise get done as the M&A deal with Embracer awaits closing.
But “Tomb Raider” isn’t the only IP that changed hands because of unique circumstances, whether it’s the future “Knives Out” films that landed at Netflix or the live-action “Voltron” movie that ultimately landed at Amazon, so it’s doubtful that this is the last adventure for Lara Croft.
Umberto Gonzalez and Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.