Fox goes ape for Stone; U keeps ‘List’ short

WHO’S THE BIGGEST GORILLA in the movie jungle? If I said Oliver Stone, few would disagree. But he really took steps to cement the claim when he signed a deal last week to do a new episode of “Planet of the Apes” at Fox. Yes, Virginia , there really is a Cornelius!

“The Apes” were once Fox’s best franchise — five features, a TV series, merchandising up the wazoo. Several years back there was a brief flutter of interest when tyro filmmaker Adam Rifkin was given the mandate to make a new chapter with producer Cassian Elwes, ahem, guerrilla style. However, then-studio chief Joe Roth took a no-Apes stance at greenlight time.

According to instant legend, Fox execs Chris Meledandri and Peter Rice recently went on a Raiders of the Lost Vault excursion. Upon return, the verdict was that the studio had a) a franchise in which the female star had been killed off, b) one Arnold refused to do, and c) a hurry-up situation before another one’s lead’s voice changed and his complexion was in dire need of Clearasil. In case you haven’t guessed, those films are “Alien,””Predator” and “Home Alone.”

As if on cue, producer Don Murphy arrived on the scene and pitched “Apes.” He and partner Jane Hampshire were deep into Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” so the Fox execs told him to bring back Ollie and a deal might be cooked up.

“We did,” said Hampshire. “Oliver’s notion is kind of in the Joseph Campbell-mytho vein. It’s about what a separate, parallel planet might be. He’s reinvented the story with a contemporary scientist going back in time to this simian universe.”

Writer Terry Hayes, of “Mad Max” fame, is writing the screenplay and Stone, contractually, has first shot at directing.

It’s worth noting that Stone has the best record of any filmmaker when it comes to actually doing what he says he’ll do. Currently testing his mettle is the long gestating “The Mayor of Castro Street,” the chronicle of the life and times of San Francisco gay politico Harvey Milk. Stone was going to direct Robin Williams but finally opted for a producing role. He passed the baton to Rob Cohen just as Williams backed out. Now, Billy Crystal has exited after demonstrating interest and the project is once again in search of a suitable star.

UNIVERSAL IS HOLDING a very tight rein on its much admired “Schindler’s List, ” which opens Wednesday in exclusives in 15 cities. The L.A. Critics top prize winner will be on about 65 screens by Christmas Day.

With the heat building, exhibitors are chomping at the bit to get it on screen … now! That desire is only heightened by the fact that the pictures currently playing in theaters aren’t performing up to expectations. But sorry fellas, Big U ain’t budging!

“This isn’t a holiday film,” insists studio marketing/distribution veep Nikki Rocco. “The subject matter dictates a respectful approach to handling its release. We’re very proud of the film and are going to do everything possible to make sure that as many people get to see it as possible. It’s just that important.”

Other holiday pix with specialized appeal are getting a little boost from the flagging showings of the season’s supposed heavyweights. MGM, following hot on its weekend numbers, is adding dates on “Six Degrees of Separation.” It’s still essentially going out on an exclusive basis, but a few more cities are being added and perhaps a screen or two in major centers pre-New Year. Los Angeles County may even see a minibreak on Dec. 22.

But one of the most interesting scenarios is Warner Bros.’ juggling act involving “Grumpy Old Men” and “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway.” Both yarns involve amorous seniors but “Grumpy” is considered the one with broader appeal. It goes wide, while the more artful “Wrestling” gets limited exposure. If everything connects, the success of the first, combined with award recognition for the second, will get “WEH” a wide release in February.

ALSO ON THE ‘SCHINDLER’S’ beat, female lead Embeth Davidtz just signed for Warner/Carolco’s “Murder in the First” opposite Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon. Not bad for someone who went from being “South Africa’s Julia Roberts” to waiting tables in L.A.

After playing the femme lead in Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness” and the TV mini “Deadly Matrimony” she was sent to see Steven Spielberg. Davidtz just liked the idea of taking a meeting, assuming the likelihood of being cast was somewhere between remote to none.

“I can’t remember what I expected but I was surprised at how warm and unpretentious Spielberg was at the meeting,” she said. “It put me totally at ease and after about an hour, as we were finishing, he kind of sheepishly asked if I’d mind coming back to read as if he might be putting me out.”

Davidtz came back and said Spielberg asked her to try doing the material a couple of different ways. “Finally, he just took the script, shook his head and said, ‘welcome to the cast.’ ”

FOR THOSE WHO FELT THE BOYS of Miramax were a sideshow attraction, the proof has finally arrived. Sunday morning a company rep reported a weekend box office projection on “The Piano” of $ 1,288,622.

Monday morning, when final numbers were available, “The Piano” gross was reported as $ 1,288,622. The prospect of a career in fortune telling should definitely be considered.

Currently in 274 playdates, about 215 dates were being tracked by Entertainment Data Inc., which calculated a screen average of $ 4,674 –$ 29 less than Miramax’s figuring. Using a high end industry figure of 70% for the non-sampling engagements, we reckon the actual weekend total at $ 1,203,712.

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