First-Look Deals: What They Are and Why Every A-List Hollywood Star Has One

In Featured, Industry Insights, Katherine Sanderson by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Katherine Sanderson –

If you read the entertainment industry trades, you probably have come across the term ‘first-look deal’. Understanding what this contract denotes will set you apart from other filmmakers, and provide you with valuable insight into the inner workings of the film and television industry. Just this year, following their recent Oscar wins, Guillermo del Toro signed a first-look deal with Fox Searchlight, and Jordan Peele, who made a film first-look deal with Universal last year, signed a tv first-look deal with Amazon. Amazon Studios has been making a lot of these deals in the last month, including deals with Nicole Kidman’s production company Blossom films and with Game of Thrones co-executive producer Vince Gerardis.

But what exactly is a “first-look deal”?

Unlike the studio star system of the Golden Age of Hollywood, this isn’t a binding contract that limits the parties from taking work at other studios or working with other talent. But by its very nature, it does restrict in what projects one works on and who may participate. So let’s take a look… at first-look deals.

What is a First-Look Deal?

A first-look deal is a contractual agreement between Party A (an actor/director/producer/writer and their production company) and Party B (a production company, network, or studio). Party A always has to be proven talent (i.e. they have at least one blockbuster under their belt). The contract stipulates that Party B will have first rights to consider a project by Party A for production and/or distribution by giving financial support during the development period. Often it also includes terms that Party A will be among the first contacted if a project fitting their criteria comes across the desk of Party B.

For actors who set up production companies at studios, this is often called a ‘vanity shingle’ by industry insiders, and producers who set up their production companies at studios are known to “hang up a shingle” at the lot (if their production company has space paid for by studio on the lot, it’s called ‘housekeeping’). These deals most commonly last a few years (usually two years), and often are extended if the relationship is a good one. For instance, the Working Title Pictures deal with Universal/Focus Features, which since 1999 has resulted in films like Bridget Jones Diary, About a Boy, Pride & Prejudice, Les Miserables, and The Theory of Everything, and after each deal expires, they have continued to extend that relationship.

A History of First-Look Deals with Actors

In the 1990s, when star power was hitting a peak, every A-list actor was starting a production company, and studios were practically handing out first-look deals to names that would look great on the marquee. But as everyone soon realized, it’s not enough to be a good actor. These actor had to understand the business. It was only in the last decade that production companies run by A-list actors have gained clout and respect in Hollywood. Examples of this are stars like Brad Pitt (Plan B Entertainment), Matt Damon + Ben Affleck (Pearl Street Films), George Clooney (Smoke House Pictures), Leonardo DiCaprio (Appian Way) and Reese Witherspoon (Type A Films). And now instead of just producing their own films, these production companies are producing other films and have expanded into other areas such as television.

But these stars weren’t the first to realize they could wield more creative control in the producer chair rather than in an actor’s chair. Way back in 1967, Clint Eastwood signed with Warner Bros, and there he has remained. His production company has space on the studio lot, and his films from Dirty Harry (1971) up until The 15:17 to Paris (2017) have been produced and distributed by the studio. Tom Cruise has also been a loyal first-look deal signee, making on with Paramount Pictures in 1992 and still working with them to this day. This deal has resulted in collaborations such as Mission Impossible series, the Jack Reacher series, and films like War of the Worlds.  More recently Bradley Cooper signed a first-look deal with Warner Bros in 2012, extended it in 2015, which has resulted in films like American Sniper and his upcoming directorial debut A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga.

In more recent years, with the golden age of television upon us, it has become more common to sign television first-look deals. One of the most successful in recent years has been that of Jennifer Lopez and NBCUniversal.  In 2013, Jennifer Lopez signed a first-look deal with NBCUniversal’s Universal Television, which has proven to be a fruitful relationship. She is executive producer/co-host of the competition dance program World of Dance, and was executive producer/star of Shades of Blue, which recently concluded with its third season.

Why does everyone on the A-list have a first-look deal?

There are three main reasons why people covet first-look deals:

  1. Projects: If you’re an A-list star and a great story comes to the attention of the studio, or vice versa, you’ll be the first to know. In the case of Michael Bay and Transformers franchise, for example, Bay had a first-look deal with Paramount Pictures, so he was one of the first (if not the first) to be asked.

  2. Association: With long-term first-look deals, there is a chance that your name will forever be associated with the other party, which can be good. If you are above the line talent (actors, directors, etc.) you can greatly benefit from aligning yourself with a major studio or production company. And if you are a studio, if you catch an actor or director before they go from a national celebrity to a worldwide star, you will already have them under contract. As their reputation improves, so does your own.

  3. Prestige: If you have a first-look deal, you have achieved the gold standard of Hollywood. When other studios and productions companies see that another wanted you so much that they signed a multi-year contract with you, then often the other companies will be more eager to work with you.

If you understand the role of the first-look deal in the structure of Hollywood’s studios and production companies, then you can better understand why certain decisions are made on talent and on distribution. Often it is merely who saw the material first… and in turn, who they have a first-look deal with. Expect to see many more Hollywood A-listers making the jump to producer, and with those who already have first-look deals for feature films, to be making first-look deals for television in the next few years.

About the Author

Katherine Sanderson currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. Originally from Colorado, she graduated with a BA in English from Santa Clara University in 2014, and is an alumna of the JPCatholic MBA program (Class of 2016). Her professional aspirations are in children/family entertainment, especially animation.

For more articles by Katherine, click here.