Imagine bursting with development work

In the month since Ron Howard and Brian Grazer officially took it private, a pared-down Imagine Entertainment finds itself in the enviable position of having four greenlighted movies and an active development war chest.

As a new element of its recently made six-year deal with Universal, Imagine has been given a “substantial development fund,” according to co-chairman Grazer — considered extraordinarily large by studio standards. As a publicly held company, Imagine financed its own development out of funds raised from its public offering.

The cost of Imagine’s movies are bankrolled by Universal, for which the indie continues to be a tentpole company contributing a handful of movies to the studio annually.

Grazer said Imagine will likely make six movies this year, with four already slated to go.

In active development is a movie version of the 1950s Phil Silvers TV series “Sgt. Bilko,” a Barry Levinson-directed comedy-drama and a new “Beauty and the Beast”-type romantic comedy by the frequent Imagine writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.

As part of its incarnation as a private company, Imagine has shrunk its staff from 42 to 17 employees, a move company officials claim has helped streamline operations.

“We don’t have the pressure to do things for the wrong reasons, like make a movie with the wrong cast because we have a publicly held company and (shareholders) want to see earnings,” Grazer said. “And we make money based on profits, not based on fees.”

Grazer said with Imagine shutting its business affairs department and depending on Universal to handle all of the company’s financial matters, he no longer has to “spend 40% of my day” bogged down with dealmaking.

“I also don’t have to spend time motivating people and being their leader — that’s a drag. We want to concentrate on making movies, that’s difficult enough.”

Production prexy David Friendly, who has been with Imagine for seven years and recently reupped for two more, added, “At a time when the company shrunk in half, we’re making more movies and running at our most efficient.”

In addition to Grazer, Howard and Friendly, Imagine’s senior management team includes marketing topper Michael Rosenberg, senior production VP Karen Kehela, production VP Michael Bostick and development director Chris Harper.

The first of four films already slated for production this year is “Greed,” a comedy to be directed by Jonathan Lynn and to star Michael J. Fox, which is set to roll June 21.

Scripted by Ganz and Mandel, the story is about a group of greedy cousins, who, in their effort to gain control of their very rich and hopefully very sick uncle’s fortune, recruit his estranged nephew (Fox) — a pro bowler who has always stayed above the family fray.

‘My Girl’ sequel set

Also scheduled to roll in June is “My Girl 2,” sequel to Columbia’s 1991 hit that starred Macaulay Culkin and Anna Chlumsky. In the follow-up, to be directed by Howard Zieff and scripted by Janet Kovalcik, Veda (Chlumsky) spends her own money to visit Uncle Phil in Los Angeles, hoping to discover more about the mother she never knew. Culkin’s character died in the original, so he won’t be back, presumably.

Negotiations are under way with a major actress to star with Michael Keaton in “The Paper,” which Howard will direct from David Koepp and Stephen Koepp’s script about a day in the life of the fictional New York Sun tabloid newspaper. The film will go before the cameras July 19.

The fourth go movie, “Cowboy Way,” to be directed by Greg Champion and to star Woody Harrelson and another yet-to-be-hired star, will roll in September. Scripted by Bill Wittliff, the fish-out-of-water action comedy follows the adventures of two cowboys from New Mexico who travel to Manhattan to save their ranch hand’s kidnapped daughter.

Grazer said he expects two more movies to “take shape and fall into place” before the year’s end.

One could be the previously announced big-screen version of “Curious George,” based on the popular children’s books. Comedy scripter Pat Proft (“Hot Shots!”) has been brought aboard to do a rewrite of an originalscript by Mike Werb and an initial rewrite by Ganz and Mandel. David Kirschner is producing with Grazer; Friendly serves as exec producer.

Another priority project is “The Gelfin,” from Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield, the writers of the Eddie Murphy comedies “Coming to America” and the Imagine-produced “Boomerang.”

Grazer said Imagine will go after a big “mainstream star” to play the lead in “Sgt. Bilko,” which Andy Breckman is scripting as a modern-day version of the comedy about an Army sergeant forever chasing the ultimate scam. Grazer will produce.

Barry Levinson is attached to direct and his partner Mark Johnson to produce “People Watchers,” scripted by Jeff Arch (“Sleepless in Seattle”). Story is about two mid-level businessmen, bored in their unfulfilling Washington, D.C., careers, who casually observe an attractive and charismatic man in a restaurant. As their imaginations go wild, they become convinced the man is part of an international conspiracy but ultimately discover he’s a harmless janitor.

Another Arch project is “Perfect Timing,” about a Southern minister in midlife crisis who sees the image of his great college love in a documentary about New York’s homeless and becomes bent on trying to rescue her.

Continuing its tradition of developing one-line ideas into full-blown movies, Imagine has a number of projects conceived in-house by Grazer, Howard and Friendly.

Among Grazer’s inventions is “The Tourists,” which he described as a “contemporary ‘Out of Towners,’ ” about an arrogant New York native who comes to Los Angeles on his way to a wedding and gets lost at every turn, meeting up with colorful local characters.

Grazer has also conceived a domestic thriller to be scripted by Chris Crowe; a physical comedy titled “Clipped” about a man who loses control of his own behavior; and a character-driven thriller set in the world of meatpacking, described as a cross between Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and “On the Waterfront.”

Based on an original idea by Howard, “Hep” is a stylish period piece in the vein of “Chinatown” that looks at Los Angeles in the early 1960s. The story centers on a handsome private investigator who must scramble to solve the murder of his partner.

Friendly dreamed up the idea for “Payback,” which he describes as “a programmer thriller” in the tone of “Fatal Attraction.” A self-made businessman finds the thriving enterprise he built from scratch being slowly infiltrated by the local Mafia. Unable to go to the police, he fights back, beating the mob at their own game.

Writers William Broyles and Texas-based journalist Al Reinert have been hired to adapt “Lost Moon,” a book by Jeff Kluger and astronaut Jim Lovell that chronicles the true story of the ill-fated flight of Apollo 13.

From John Mattson, the writer of Paramount’s recently acquired $ 1 million spec script “Milk Money,” is the project “Grace,” about two 12-year-old girls who employ unusual means to become popular in their seventh-grade class. Grazer produces, with John Jacobs serving as exec producer.

Lasse Hallstrom is developing and is attached to produce and possibly direct “The Hunt,” based on a script by his “My Life As a Dog” collaborators Donna Matson Jonsson & Reidar Jonsson. The piece is about a group of friends who get drunk on a hunting trip and while driving accidentally hit and kill a local boy. The brother-in-law of the group’s leader witnesses the coverup and blackmails his way into the hunting party, setting up a cat and mouse game within the wilderness.

Janet Meyers will produce “Inventing the Abbots,” from a script by Ken Hixon about two brothers set against the backdrop of a small-town social hierarchy.

Heartfelt story

Eric Tuchmann has scripted “Change of Heart,” which tells of an affluent widower who tries to find a nanny for his troubled 7-year-old daughter.

Imagine is also developing “Girls Project,” a comedy by Gigi Levangie.

Other previously announced development projects include “Blowhard!,” a Friendly-conceived parody of action films to be directed by Brian Levant (“Beethoven”); and “Friday Night Lights,” to be directed and produced by Alan J. Pakula from a script by David Aaron Cohen and based on the non-fiction bestseller about four high school football players in Texas.

Also on board is “Minimum Security,” a comedy by Jon Connolly and David Loucka (“Dream Team”); “Parole Office,” an action comedy by Pam Norris and Theresa Rebeck that Janet Meyers and Howard will produce; “Sea Wolf” (at Columbia), Tom Rickman’s script based on Jack London’s classic novel; and “Spike Heels,” a contemporary romantic comedy by Theresa Rebeck based on the off-Broadway play about sexual harassment.

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