CATEGORIES Features, Hot Topic

You'd think Ron Howard's name alone would be enough to get a project made at Universal, the studio he's called home for nearly a quarter-century. Even when that project is an ambitious, multi-part adaptation of a Stephen King book series that would encompass three movies and a TV show, you'd think Howard's 30-year track record as a hitmaker and Oscar-winner would be enough to mitigate the risk.

And yet, Universal has pulled the plug on 'The Dark Tower' after the project spent more than a year in development. That the studio would snub its most dependable in-house director after so many years of partnership, especially after he'd already put so much time and effort into getting the project off the ground, suggests more than just cost-consciousness on Universal's part. It also suggests that Howard doesn't command the respect or hold the power he once did.

In the short term, Howard's dilemma may stem from 'The Dilemma,' his early 2011 flop that was his biggest box office disappointment in ages. But a look at Howard's recent movies suggests that, the two Dan Brown adaptations aside, Howard hasn't had a huge hit since 'A Beautiful Mind' a decade ago. Maybe it's Howard, not 'The Dark Tower,' that Universal thought wasn't worth gambling hundreds of millions of dollars on.

Javier BardemHoward had already put in plenty of time on 'The Dark Tower,' which he wanted to tell over the course of three films and one interstitial TV series. He already had a writer (Akiva Goldsman, who has worked with Howard several times, including 'The Da Vinci Code,' 'Angels and Demons' and 'Beautiful Mind'), a star (Oscar-winner Javier Bardem) to play Roland the Gunslinger, and a May 17, 2013, release date. But a couple months ago, Universal started dragging its feet on final approval. With Howard moving on to the car-racing drama 'Rush' and Bardem signing on to a role in the next James Bond movie, it's been all but certain for weeks now that Universal was passing on 'Dark Tower' but simply hadn't made it official until Monday.

As Deadline New York noted, 'Dark Tower' isn't the only ambitious horror/fantasy project from a name director and star that Universal has passed on recently. Earlier this year, the studio turned down Guillermo del Toro's 'At the Mountains of Madness,' a proposed adaptation of a tale by renowned horror author H.P. Lovecraft -- with no less than Tom Cruise attached to star. Reportedly, the studio didn't want to spend $150 million on a movie that del Toro couldn't guarantee would come in with a rating less restrictive than R. But del Toro, unlike Howard, isn't a household name with a long box-office track record. Plus, Deadline reported, Universal is still going ahead with such $200 million projects as 'Battleship' (based on the board game) and '47 Ronin' (starring Keanu Reeves, directed by relative rookie Carl Rinsch). So it's not like Universal has completely given up on big, expensive, risky projects helmed by less-than-A-list directors. Why, then, is Howard out in the cold?

One reason could be what his recent films earned. 'The Dilemma,' released earlier this year, earned just $48 million, a considerable disappointment for a movie that reportedly cost $70 million to make. The film's tone-deaf marketing campaign (featuring the casual, tossed-off use of the word "gay" as an insult in the trailer) earned Howard an unfamiliar and unwelcome stain of controversy. Before that, Howard's 'Frost/Nixon' won critical praise and some Oscar attention, but it also returned just $19 million from a budget of $35 million. In fact, none of Howard's works for Universal in the last decade grossed more than $62 million. ('The Da Vinci Code' did make $218 million, while follow-up 'Angels and Demons' made a lot less, $133 million, but both were distributed by Sony.)

It's possible that, with 'The Dark Tower,' Howard simply ran up against the limits of his abilities, and not just because of the project's enormous scope. He's skilled as a director of comedies, historical dramas and thrillers, but he's never done horror, and his last fantasy epic, 1988's 'Willow,' came off with mixed results. 'Rush,' a race-car drama with an easy-to-control star ('Thor' newbie Chris Hemsworth), may be more his speed.

Stephen KingHoward does remain attached to 'The Dark Tower,' and King, for one, thinks he'll still direct it for another studio. In an email he sent to Entertainment Weekly's Inside Movies blog today, King wrote that he was disappointed but not surprised about the Universal snub: "As a rule, they've been about smaller and less risky pix; maybe they feel it would be better to stick with those fast and furious racing boys. I bear them no ill will, and trust Ron Howard to get Roland and his friends before the camera somewhere else. He's very committed to the project."

Is he? Howard doesn't seem to be in any, um, rush to make 'Dark Tower' a priority. Maybe he wants to notch another hit under his belt before he tries again, and maybe some other studio (like franchise-loving Warner Bros.) will find treasure in Universal's trash. But it may be that the fastest way for Howard to get 'The Dark Tower' filmed would be to hand it off to another filmmaker.

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.