Hollywood’s growing interest in timely projects dealing with such critical issues as AIDS and the environment intensified last week when 20th Century Fox acquired for producer Lynda Obst the highly sought-after movie rights to a New Yorker article about deadly viruses.

Outbidding Warner Bros. for producer Arnold Kopelson, as well as Propaganda Films, Fox paid $ 100,000 against $ 400,000 to option Richard Preston’s piece “Crisis in the Hot Zone”–a true story chronicling the heroic efforts of an Army biological SWAT team at a Maryland medical research lab attempting to contain a wildly infectious virus after a near-fatal breakout four years ago.

The material, auctioned off by Creative Artists Agency’s Robert Bookman, also drew intense interest from directors Michael Mann and Ridley Scott. Sources said Scott was upset when Paramount, where he has a deal, lowballed an offer. A Fox insider indicated that Scott may be approached about the possibility of developing and directing the Obst project.

Moving fast

Obst and Fox are acting quickly to get their project off the ground since they are facing fierce competition from rivals such as Kopelson, who avows that though he didn’t win the rights to the New Yorker piece, he and WB are in high gear to get their own fictional movie version of a similar story going.

Kopelson said the studio has hired writer and medical expert Lawrence Dworet and Bob Poole to pen the screenplay, which the producer hopes to have in hand within a matter of weeks. He said the writers have begun their research on the project, tentatively titled “Pandora” because, as Kopelson explains, it’s about viruses that escape “out of the box.”

Obst, for whom Fox’s purchase of “Hot Zone” was the first acquisition for the producer since she inked a new first-look deal at the studio just weeks ago, was unavailable for comment Friday and a Fox official said the studio does not discuss development deals.

Not wasting any time, Obst flew off to Maryland last week to begin the process of obtaining the life-story rights to the two central figures in the “Hot Zone” story, Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax and her husband, Col. Gerald Jaax. The two were assigned by the Army in 1979 to USAMRIID, acronym for the military’s medical defense facility in Fort Detrick, Md., that researches ways to protect soldiers against biological weapons and natural infectious diseases.

Sources said that in making the deal with Preston, Fox and Obst have exclusive first negotiation rights with the Jaaxes, as well as rights to Preston’s planned book on “Hot Zone,” which is being handled by the author’s New York publishing agent, Lynn Nesbitt.

Using the article as underlying source material, “Crisis in the Hot Zone” will be a medical thriller in the vein of “The Andromeda Strain,””Silkwood” and “The China Syndrome.” The story is about a female pathologist heading a small research unit investigating an outbreak of a potentially lethal virus near Washington, D.C., in 1989 that was a close relative of a strain that wiped out 55 African villages 13 years earlier.

When several research monkeys from the Philippines arrive and suddenly start dying from a wildly infectious virus, the team has to shut down the lab to contain the virus in “the hot zone,” and determine whether it’s transmittable to humans through the air.

The article also raises the specter of how the emergence of AIDS–“arguably the worst environmental disaster of the 20th century”– appears to be a natural consequence of the destruction of the tropical biosphere. “You might call AIDS the revenge of the rainforest,” writes Preston, who also addresses the possibility of deadly airborne viruses escaping and potentially threatening the human species.

Fox and Obst also have to move fast to assign a screenwriter to “Hot Zone.” Screenwriting/producing partners Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”), who are credited with tipping Fox senior VP production Michael London to the New Yorker piece after it ran in October, probably would have scripted the movie but they’re not available. They are working on a screen adaptation of Edward Gorman’s novella “Moonchasers” for Hollywood Pictures, where they have an overall deal.

Given the urgency of the situation, Fox immediately assigned the project to Obst, whose most recent producer credits include “The Fisher King” and the upcoming “Sleepless in Seattle.”

As Obst and Kopelson race to get their projects flying, Trilogy Entertainment partners Pen Densham, John Watson and Richard Lewis (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,””Backdraft”) are negotiating to close a deal at Touchstone on a similar story idea they’ve been developing.

Not wanting to divulge details, Densham said only, “It’s a ‘Panic in the Streets’ kind of project.”

The writer noted, “A lot of people in Hollywood are looking at adventures and thrillers based on AIDS and viruses that have become the murderers of the ’90s.”

Looking for heroes

In a symbolic sense, he added, “We want to see some St. Georges spearing the dragon of the AIDS virus, and all feel that to make heroes of people willing to risk their lives in order to face this incredible killer is an extraordinary story of courage and heroism.”

Joni Sighvatsson, co-owner of Propaganda Films, the other bidder for the “Hot Zone” article, said he and partner Steve Golin have been “passionate” about the piece since its publication.

Sighvatsson, like Kopelson, said he attempted to secure the rights to the magazine piece two months ago from a Los Angeles attorney hired by Preston, but failed to get “any response.”

Two weeks ago, Nesbitt called on CAA’s Bookman, with whom she and her company have an ongoing business relationship, to come aboard and help sell the movie rights. Sighvatsson said when Propaganda found out CAA was representing the piece, “We got into the bidding and came up to bat, which we normally don’t do, but we were that passionate.”

He said Propaganda will not be pursuing a movie akin to “Hot Zone,” but “it has sparked some ideas in terms of other projects. … We may visit the territory, but won’t do anything close to the story.”

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