By Ronald Grover
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - No one has more riding on the outcome of the summer movie season than Thomas Tull, the former investment banker-turned-head of Legendary Pictures and a producer of this weekend's heavily hyped "Man of Steel."
Tull, the financier with a penchant for comic books who raised $500 million in 2004 to start Legendary Pictures, is in the midst of Hollywood's equivalent of a roadshow, visiting studios to pitch his outfit and seal what may become one of the industry's richest distribution deals, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Legendary is one of Hollywood's most prolific producers of big-budget films, among them director Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" and his two "Dark Knight" installments that have generated combined worldwide ticket sales of more than $2.4 billion, according to Box Office Mojo.
Now, as its distribution and financing deal with Warner Bros. approaches a December 31 expiration, Tull is intent on striking a deal with a new studio that would enable him to expand his company to make TV shows and license consumer products and theme park rides, the people said.
Tull has already met with most of Hollywood's studio chiefs. On Thursday, he lunched in Beverly Hills with Jim Gianopulos, the head of News Corp's Fox film studio, according to one of the people.
Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures and Sony Corp's film studio are among those that have shown interest, according to people with knowledge of the overtures, as has Warner Bros., which is making a late bid to keep Legendary.
Representatives for Universal, Sony and Warner had no comment. A Fox spokesman was not available for comment. A Legendary spokeswoman declined to comment or make Tull available for an interview.
Legendary has quietly become a force to be reckoned with during the all-important 2013 summer season. It is supplying six movies from March to August to distributor Warner Bros., including alien movie "Pacific Rim," which cost an estimated $180 million to make and will be released in the United States on July 12. "Man of Steel," the highly anticipated reboot of the "Superman" franchise opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, had a $225 million budget.
Their success may help determine whether Tull manages to snag a new deal on his terms.
'COMIC BOOK GEEK'
Tull typically either produces or provides financing for movies. Legendary already has "The Hangover," "Inception," "Clash of the Titans," "300," and this year's Jackie Robinson film "42" under its belt. Those films were all distributed by Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Legendary will likely continue to make films focused on comics such as "Watchmen," based on the cult graphic novel by Alan Moore.
"I'm a full-grown comic book geek," Tull said in a 2010 appearance at a conference sponsored by Fortune magazine. "I'm the Batman guy."
Legendary is a catch because it comes with its own pile of money, and reduces the studio's risk by shouldering some of the costs. In December, it raised $443 million from various financial companies, valuing the company at $2.8 billion, according to people with knowledge of the deal.
But Legendary's reliance on big-budget movies also can expose it to hefty losses. This year, it lost an unspecified amount on "Jack the Giant Slayer." It co-financed the film's $195 million budget, but the movie sold just $197 million worth of tickets worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. Studios generally get about half of ticket sales.
Tull is already taking steps for Legendary to control more of its own future. Last month, it agreed to a long-term deal to make and market films in the growing Chinese market with state-owned China Film Co., the country's largest producer and distributor.
And a few weeks before that, Tull bought FIVE33, a marketing company that has helped promote major films including Paramount Pictures' "Star Trek Into Darkness."
(Reporting By Ronald Grover; Edited by Edwin Chan and Chris Gallagher)