Martin Scorsese courts Apple and Netflix to rescue costly DiCaprio film

Scorsese's team also reportedly approached Comcast Corp's Universal Studios and MGM Holdings Inc

Martin Scorsese's representatives have been holding talks with Apple Inc., Netflix Inc. and others, as they seek a new company to produce or distribute the director's next big-budget film, according to people familiar with the matter. This shift would be the second time in a row the director's project has become too costly for its original studio.

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The project, "Killers of the Flower Moon," had been slated for production at ViacomCBS Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, but then the movie's cost ballooned to more than $200 million, another person familiar with the matter said.

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Paramount Pictures agreed in 2019 to make the big-budget drama, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. Even before the coronavirus pandemic upended the global economy and brought Hollywood productions to a halt, Paramount executives expressed concern over the film's rising projected cost, according to this person. They gave the Oscar-winning filmmaker's representatives the go-ahead to offer the project to other studios, the person said.

The movie could still end up at Paramount, these people said, but possibly with a new structure that includes an additional partner.

Mr. Scorsese's team also approached Comcast Corp's Universal Studios and MGM Holdings Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.

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The planned movie is an adaptation of journalist David Grann's bestselling 2017 nonfiction book of the same name. It was in preproduction before the coronavirus pandemic brought much of the nation's economy, including Hollywood, to a standstill.

The book chronicles the murder of oil-rich Osage Nation Native Americans in 1920s Oklahoma. During the course of the investigation a nascent federal law enforcement agency -- a precursor of today's Federal Bureau of Investigation -- is tasked with cracking the case.

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This isn't the first time Mr. Scorsese has tangled with Paramount over a movie's budget. In 2017, after costs jumped on "The Irishman," also starring Mr. De Niro, its producers moved the project to Netflix. Estimates for Netflix's total spending to produce the movie range from $173 million to more than $200 million, according to people familiar with the movie's numbers, making it one of the most expensive adult dramas in recent history.

A streaming platform like Apple or Netflix may be a better fit for "Killers of the Flower Moon." Traditional studios have been increasingly shying away from expensive adult dramas, as in recent years the box office has been dominated by family-friendly titles, superhero movies and sequels.

Instead, many Hollywood producers now look to make movies aimed at adult audiences as cheaply as possible, with streaming-distribution deals potentially representing the difference between a profit and a loss.

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Landing a film directed by Mr. Scorsese was widely seen as a boon to Netflix's efforts to establish itself as a producer of high-quality films. The streaming service spent lavishly to promote "The Irishman" for awards consideration, yielding 10 Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. But the film went home empty-handed in February.

As with "The Irishman," whether "Killers of the Flower Moon" might play in theaters, and for how long, is likely to be an issue in talks with any potential new distributor. Netflix released "The Irishman" briefly in a limited number of independent theaters before putting the film on its streaming service. But Netflix failed to reach a distribution agreement with bigger multiplex owners, which typically have required a longer theatrical run before a movie becomes available for home viewing.

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The project could still end up being produced at Paramount, but that appears unlikely given the current budget and script, a person familiar with the studio's thinking said. If a streaming company took over the project, the studio could consider a partnership through which it handles theatrical distribution, the person said. But no matter what, any company interested in assuming control of the movie has to go through Paramount and would have to compensate the studio for money invested in the project, the person also said.

If Apple emerges victorious, the film would mark the tech giant's splashiest foray yet into filmmaking. Until now, the company has primarily focused on producing high-profile series for its fledgling streaming service. Late last year the company agreed to make a big-budget musical version of "A Christmas Carol," starring Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, according to people familiar with the matter. The company also recently released its first original movie, "The Banker, " to its platform, a drama starring Samuel L. Jackson.