Hollywood awaits how Peter Chernin will fare with new venture

Peter Chernin has kept Hollywood spellbound.

The entertainment industry has been waiting to see whether the man who helped build Rupert Murdoch's sprawling film, TV and digital colossus can parlay one of the richest producer deals in history into his own vibrant media venture.

Chernin is about to unspool his first high-profile projects since concluding his 20-year career at News Corp. in 2009.

On Aug. 5, Chernin Entertainment's prequel to the languishing franchise "Planet of the Apes" opens in theaters. The costly special-effects laden television series "Terra Nova," produced with Steven Spielberg, premieres in late September on the Fox network.

These projects form the foundation for Chernin's modern media company, which keeps its roots in film and TV production but also branches into emerging global markets, including China and India, and digital technologies that could reshape the entertainment landscape.

Still, some wonder whether the enterprise, bankrolled by News Corp., will satisfy someone long considered one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood.

"People have said, "Oh, this isn't going to be exciting enough for him because he's not running a whole huge company anymore," said Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. "Why is he going to want to be just a producer?"

Chernin's name is often mentioned for potential top jobs at Apple Inc. or Yahoo Inc. or a traditional media company. Chernin was approached last year to join an effort to buy Yahoo and assume a leadership role in the company, said one person with knowledge of the situation.

"Could Peter have another big company gig? Yes. Will he? It's 50/50," said Gordon Crawford, senior vice president of Capital Research and Management Co., an investor in Chernin's Asian ventures. "He's not closing the door to an opportunity like that."

Chernin declined to be interviewed.

When he stepped down as president of News Corp., Chernin exercised a six-year exit package modeled after the generous deals Fox lavished on "Avatar" director James Cameron and "The Practice" creator David E. Kelly.

News Corp.'s Fox is required to fund at least two movies a year and air three TV shows. If the studio does not pick up the required number of projects, it must pay Santa Monica-based Chernin Entertainment a penalty of $9 million per movie and $2.5 million for each unfilled TV slot, according to people familiar with the deal's terms. Fox has not paid any penalties.

The lucrative package underscored Chernin's clout.

Credited as an industry statesman who helped settle the contentious 2007 writers strike, Chernin, 60, also is the rare executive who possesses both business savvy and creative chops.

People who work with him say he has been deeply involved, meeting with directors, giving notes on scripts and wielding his influence to attract such top stars as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kiefer Sutherland. He even showed up in the editing bay to help perform triage on scenes on a failed pilot.

"He loves getting into a room full of writers to talk about movies and TV shows," said his friend Rick Rosen, head of TV for talent agency William Morris Endeavor. "He enjoys that part of the process."

Fox wanted to revive its "Planet of the Apes" franchise, which was considered a seminal science fiction film when released in 1968. The studio had a script with potential that explored the origins of how apes became the planet's dominant primates, but it posed technical challenges.

"It was a fascinating read, but I never really thought much about making [the movie] because it was impossible to do," said Fox Studios Co-Chairman Tom Rothman, noting the story is told from the point of view of a chimp who must deliver a dramatic performance. "You can't train animals to do it."

With recent advances in visual effects, Fox reconsidered and entrusted the project to Chernin. "He's an extremely steady hand on the wheel," Rothman said. "That's helpful when you're in uncharted waters."

Chernin hired director Rupert Wyatt, even though he had never worked on a major film. The veteran executive recognized thematic similarities between the director's 2008 prison break film, "The Escapist," and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," in which a chimp breaks free of human domination.

Wyatt said Chernin has been involved in key decisions to give the $93-million production broader commercial appeal, including placing the story in present-day San Francisco.

"Fox, quite rightly, is very protective of this franchise," said Wyatt. "For them to just hand it to a first-time studio director, that's a massive risk in itself for them. Frankly, I don't think I would have had that opportunity without Peter."

Chernin's TV division got off to a bumpy start. Networks took a pass on its initial pilots, and in 2010 Fox executives were hunting for projects to steer to him. They were intrigued by a script about a family that travels back to prehistoric times.

"I got a phone call from Fox. They said we are ordering your show straight to series but you have two new partners — Steven Spielberg and Peter Chernin," producer Aaron Kaplan recalled. "It was a genius move by Fox."

Shot in Australia, "Terra Nova" is shaping up to be one of the most expensive TV shows ever made. The complicated drama, with a price tag topping $4 million an episode, has been dogged by problems, including turnover in writing staff and torrential rains that nearly washed away a crew member.

Fox almost pulled the plug on the unwieldy production, which included a crew of hundreds of people and complex computer-generated creatures.

"Peter had the ability to push the project forward at those junctures when it could have fallen apart," said Dana Walden, chairwoman of 20th Century Fox Television. "He has a big picture view and doesn't get bogged down in the minutiae."

Chernin's wide-angle perspective extends to his other pursuits.

"He likes to play in a lot of different playgrounds," said NBC's Greenblatt.

Chernin hired three financial executives to scout for investments in traditional media as well as ventures in China and India. He has a keen interest in Silicon Valley, investing in technology firms — including Internet radio company Pandora Media Inc., digital media startup Fullscreen and Flipboard Inc., maker of software that displays social media photos and online news stories in a magazine format on the iPad.

The company's bet on Pandora is paying off, with its stake worth more than $20 million, according to information contained in securities filings.

"We spent a lot of time figuring out who we could work with, with integrity and smarts and strategic thinking," said David Sze, a partner in venture capital firm Greylock Partners, which backed Pandora and recommended Chernin for its board. "Peter stands so far above everyone else….it was a no-brainer."

Times staff writer Ben Fritz contributed to this report.

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