SPE romancing Whitaker

Sony Pictures Entertainment is interested in getting into the Forest Whitaker business in a big way.

SPE is negotiating to acquire Whitaker’s directorial debut “Strapped” from HBO Showcase, while TriStar Pictures has approached Whitaker to direct the big-budget action pic “Number Four,” sources confirmed.

Late Friday, SPE chairman Peter Guber and motion picture group president Jonathan Dolgen were vigorously negotiating with HBO Showcase to purchase the rights to “Strapped,” which would be released theatrically instead.

An HBO Showcase spokesman confirmed Monday that discussions are ongoing with SPE for “Strapped.” He said HBO Showcase was “very intrigued” by SPE’s interest in taking the movie out theatrically.

SPE and TriStar declined comment on the reports, while attempts to reach Whitaker were unsuccessful. The star of “Crying Game” and “Bird,” Whitaker is currently shooting the Showtime movie “Lushlife” with Jeff Goldblum.

If SPE and HBO are able to strike the ambitious deal, it will have to be consummated in the next few days, or else HBO will have to yank the movie from its cable schedule. HBO has “Strapped” pegged for cablecast in late June.

The deal attempts to strike a difficult balance, since HBO Showcase could demand a premium for taking the movie out of its summer cable schedule — a factor that would make it harder for SPE to turn a profit on the release.

Budgeted between $ 2 million and $ 3 million, “Strapped” is the story of a teenager who agrees to help the police investigate inner-city gun dealers in order to raise bail for his pregnant girlfriend. Written by Dena Kleiman, the pic stars Michael Biehn (“Terminator”).

HBO Showcase executive producer Colin Callender and HBO Showcase producer Brian Siberell were centrally involved in “Strapped,” and have taken an active stance in negotiations with SPE. Producers of the pic are Michael Apted and Robert O’Connor.

If a deal is completed, “Strapped” would be the first HBO Showcase project to be snapped up by a major distributor prior to its premiere on the pay cable service.

Whitaker is represented by Intl. Creative Management’s West Coast head of operations Bill Block, who had no comment, and by Michael Goldman (Block’s former assistant who has just ascended to agent status).

SPE’s interest in “Strapped” marks the continued blurring between cable and theatrical product.

“TNT and HBO have become qualitative, efficient producers of interesting programming,” Turner Pictures president Dennis Miller said. “The studios are always looking for those type of suppliers.”

“Number Four,” meanwhile, appears to be on the fast track at the studio.

Written by Preston Whitmore, the property was purchased by TriStar from a pitch by George Jackson and Doug McHenry of Jackson/McHenry Co. in November. Sources said “Strapped” and “Number Four” are being handled as separate transactions at SPE and TriStar.

Affectionately labeled “Die Hard” on a bus, “Number Four” is about the seizure of a bus by a group of bank robbers. The movie gets its title from Los Angeles City route No. 4, which treks through South Central Los Angeles.

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