The Lost Picture Show

Why Jim Carrey’s new project with Tim Burton was postponed.

Paramount is pushing back Believe It or Not, a mega-budget project that was to be directed by Tim Burton and star Jim Carrey. The studio has instead switched Burton to a film version of Sweeney Todd, a far less expensive project belonging to DreamWorks (which is now owned by Paramount). This leaves Carrey in the awkward position of having had two major films vanish in the space of a few weeks.

Before Believe It or Not, Carrey was supposed to be making Used Guys for Fox. That comedy, directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), was also to star Ben Stiller. With millions of dollars spent in preparation, Fox pulled the plug recently as the budget climbed to $112 million. The studio concluded that the film would not have broad enough appeal to justify the enormous price tag.

Believe is (or was?) an action film based on the exploits of the adventurer who created the famous “Believe It or Not” column. It was far more expensive than Used Guys, weighing in somewhere around $150 million. Hypothetically, Believe is only postponed while the script gets some additional work. According to Eric Gold, one of Carrey’s managers, the star agreed with the studio that the script needed more attention.

Paramount is casting the postponement in the same light. But the studio also was clearly nervous about a staggering price tag. It makes an interesting wager whether Paramount will ever pony up for the picture. Gold asserts that it will. “We plan on making this movie in about a year with Tim Burton. We plan on making it at the budget that’s been greenlit,” he says.

There’s potential for trouble here because Paramount seems to feel that the movie wasn’t actually greenlighted. Carrey is still a potent box-office proposition, but he’s known for being exceptionally high-maintenance. And as a top executive at another studio points out, getting into this expensive game with Burton and Carrey could be scary. For one thing, the two of them could easily eat up to 30 percent of the movie’s gross.

“You have two gifted, extremely talented people, but they both have a tendency toward eccentricity,” this executive says. “And when you get two of them together, there are no boundaries. … You could easily see it going off the rails. I would imagine that the studio was trying to get it more mainstream and less eccentric, and these are guys who believe they can’t do anything wrong. They genuinely believe they can’t fail. They don’t understand the economics of what they do.”

But a knowledgeable source says Carrey understands the business and actually gave up a discounted $20 million upfront fee for the first time on a big-budget movie so the picture could get made. That still wouldn’t let Paramount off the hook for a big back-end payment of gross to the star. What seems clear is that studios are increasingly nervous about placing these big bets. “Definitely, there’s cold-feet syndrome,” says a top executive at another studio. Given the economics of the business these days, it’s a syndrome that may occur with increasing frequency.