MGM Wins Auction For ‘Thirteen Lives,’ Ron Howard-Directed Thriller About Thai Cave Rescue

EXCLUSIVE: MGM prevailed in an auction for Thirteen Lives, making a $55 million production commitment for a drama that Ron Howard will direct from a script by Oscar-nominated Gladiator scribe William Nicholson about the rescue of a dozen members of the Wild Boar soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. Pic will be a co-production of Imagine Entertainment, Storyteller Productions, and Magnolia Mae.

Pic is produced by P.J van Sandwijk of Storyteller Productions, Gabrielle Tana of Magnolia Mae, and Brian Grazer, Howard and Karen Lunder of Imagine Entertainment. The deal comes with the rights of British cave divers John Volanthen, Richard Stanton, Jason Mallinson, Chris Jewell, Josh Bratchley and Connor Roe, who were instrumental in the harrowing rescue.

Bidding was plentiful on this one, a good sign that studios and financiers are gearing up for a return to production after everything screeched to a halt in the pandemic. The auction came down to Apple and MGM, which under new movie chief Michael De Luca and Film Group President Pamela Abdy have been aggressive in bidding on big projects to assemble his first slate. The sellers wanted a theatrical release, and MGM was very aggressive.

“The Thai families, government and a community of farmers and neighbors who came together to support a global group of rescue divers to aide in the recovery of 12 fearless young men and their coach was an extraordinary act of teamwork. MGM is deeply honored to be a part of this project with Ron, Brian, Karen, P.J., Gaby and to share with audiences everywhere the incredible real-life story of people working together to reunite the 13 with their families,” said Abdy.

Said Howard: “This film is case study in courage and volunteerism – the courage of those who were trapped, of the divers, of the officials and of the locals who all came together to overcome insurmountable odds while the world watched. Brian and I are excited to partner with MGM, P.J., and Gaby, to bring this heroic story to audiences around the word.”

Van Sandwijk called the film “a testament of humanity at its finest; an example of when in need, people will find a way of working together, and when united, we can achieve the impossible.”

Tana said: “What a moment in time to be able to tell a story that reflects the necessity of global co-operation and the strength of the human spirit. At this moment in history, telling this story seems more meaningful than ever and is an extraordinary privilege,” said Gabrielle Tana.

Deal was a production commitment of $55 million, sources said. As Deadline wrote when revealing the project last Thursday, buyers saw a script that can quickly be put into production under Howard that is evocative of his triumphant Apollo 13, an impossible rescue that came down to ingenuity against a racing clock. That 1995 film pitted the crew of the disabled spacecraft and the team of NASA scientists and astronauts on the ground, to find a solution before oxygen ran out.

Here, the rescue came down to an international effort that tried to achieve the same goal. Set in Bang Chong, Thailand, the tale begins as the Wild Boars and their coach detour from a trek to a team member to visit a cave in Tham Luang. When the team doesn’t show up for the party, parents fear the worst. It’s monsoon season, and heavy rain have flooded the cave, trapping the team somewhere in its network of tunnels. Over the course of the next few days, as the rain continues to pour, local governor Narongsak assembles a rescue team of Navy SEALS, accompanied by a retired SEAL, Saman Kunan. An initial dive finds conditions that are too treacherous. These boys are in mortal danger.

The rescue soon becomes an international effort. In come volunteer British diving experts British cave divers John Volanthen, Richard Stanton, Jason Mallinson, Chris Jewell, Josh Bratchley and Connor Roe — at a moment when panic and media fills the air. The Minister of the Interior, General Anupong works with water engineer, Thanet Natisri to figure out a way to alleviate water pressure to keep the dark cave passages from filling. The first time the Brit divers attempt to find the boys, they are nearly swept away and doubt the boys could still be alive. The U.S. Air Force arrives a day later and joins the rescue effort. Local farmers show a level of selflessness when they allow water to be diverted away from the cave and into their fields, even though it will ruin their crops. This buys the rescuers time.

The Brits try again the following day, locating coach and kids. But it seems impossible to get them out before the rains come again. It’s a five hour dive and the kids are weakened. If one panics, they would use up an oxygen supply that in the best of conditions might not be enough. During a mission to bring food to the kids, the retired Thai SEAL Kunan dies, underscoring the danger. The race against time is then helped by an Australian team and a Belgian diver, as they figure out a risky way to execute the rescue. It was an 18-year ordeal.

The film originated with Storyteller Productions and its producers van Sandwijk, Michael Lesslie and Marie Savare, who approached Tana and Carolyn Marks Blackwood of MagnoliaMae Films to co-finance the development. They developed the script inhouse under wraps as there are competing projects elsewhere. They got the rights deal with the British divers, brought in Nicholson to write it and engaged Howard and Imagine.

There are a couple of competing projects percolating here. There’s a movie at Universal and Cavalry Media that has Free Solo filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi attached, and Netflix partnered with Crazy Rich Asians producer SK Global on a mini-series with Jon Chu that focuses on the kids. There’s also a NatGeo docu with Kevin MacDonald.

CAA Media Finance brokered the deal.

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