Rights holders for big genre, comic book and toy properties are getting smart. In the past few decades we’ve seen many potentially huge adaptations languish as studios and producers waffled about finding the right approach to a project. But in the wake of big-dollar successes from Lord of the Rings to Spider-Man and The Dark Knight, companies such as Hasbro and the rights holders for projects like Dune are demanding new contracts, levying fines for delayed production starts and refusing to grant option extensions to studios that can’t get a project off the ground.

In the past few years, Paramount has held the rights to Dune, and a couple of high-profile directors have taken a crack at the difficult adaptation. Peter Berg was on the film, but then went to make Battleship for Universal. (More on that in a moment.) Pierre Morel (Taken) jumped on to the project, but the word now is that he no longer plans to direct.

So Universal needs a new director, but the clock is ticking. Dune‘s owners will take the project back next year if a film isn’t in motion.

Deadline reports on the maneuver by the Frank Herbert estate and ABC, who control the Dune rights, to get producer Richard P. Rubinstein and his company New Amsterdam to push a film into active production at Paramount. We don’t know the exact deadline, but the studio’s option on Dune expires next spring, and the rights holders won’t grant another extension.

So Paramount is in the position of having to pull together a $100m+ production adapting one of the more notoriously difficult pieces of source material in sci-fi. If that doesn’t happen the studio loses the money that has been put into development.

The studio does have a new script draft from Chase Palmer, but no director at the moment. That script might attract a new helmer or, should Paramount lose Dune, turn into an asset that could help recoup a small amount of money should another studio use that draft. Pierre Morel is reportedly staying on as an exec producer. There is no reported director shortlist at the moment.

We’re going to be hearing more of this. In fact, we already have. Ghost Rider 2 is shooting right now because Sony had no choice. The company had to get a film into production or let the rights lapse back to Marvel. Superman has been moving forward in advance of litigation that will change the rights landscape for that character.

And Hasbro got Universal to sign a deal that requires the studio to actively — very actively — develop projects based on the company’s properties, or face multi-million dollar financial penalties. That’s part of how Battleship got moving so quickly, and the relatively empty framework of the story allowed Peter Berg to make a gigantic naval battle movie with aliens with a bonus: Universal will finance his dream project, the realistic Navy SEAL film Lone Survivor, afterward.

Great for him, and great for Hasbro, but I remain mystified at the fact that Universal signed a contract that allows Hasbro to levy such significant penalties. This is a studio that has had a string of very expensive failures like Land of the Lost to Green Zone, and now it is in a deal that allows Hasbro to levy a $5m kill fee if it didn’t get something into production by deadline? That’s the picture Vulture painted a week ago, which had this as the real kicker:

Let’s stop for a moment to really underline the moviemaking times we are living in: Hollywood studio heads were begging a Rhode Island toy company for more time so they could spend $200 million on a state of the art CGI film based on an early twentieth-century board game. So, there we are.

Paramount isn’t in quite that position, but the question remains to be answered: will the studio rush Dune into production to avoid losing both money already spent and potential future grosses? In this particular case the spectre of David Lynch‘s failed adaptation looms large, and is a giant caution sign for the studio.

And what’s better? A fast development time that doesn’t allow studios to dwell on every possible end result, or a protracted development that goes through a string of creators before the right one is found? That’s not even specific to Dune. I’d love to read the Chase Palmer draft to see if he’s really done what so many others couldn’t. And while I think Universal is insane for signing the contract it did with Hasbro, at the same time it’s easy to see why the toy company and so many others are insisting on more control. But in the case of Dune, which is such a tough nut to crack, will it make any difference?

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