TWO IN ARAU: The international box office sensation “Like Water for Chocolate” has certainly put helmer Alfonso Arau on the map as a filmmaker. Of course, some of us still can’t shake that image of him as the grinning, sadistic Mexican soldier in “The Wild Bunch.” He even has what he describes as a quasi-sequel in the works of an old Peckinpah project that would reunite the great director’s acting stock company.

But before that, Arau has been beckoned to Hollywood to do the period romantic drama “A Walk in the Clouds,” which just got picked up by Fox when MGM put it in turnaround (see story, page 1). Keanu Reeves and “Belle Epoque’s” Ariadna Gil will star when filming begins this summer.

The actor-director has an earlier date with destiny in about a month’s time. That’s when it’s anticipated “Like Water” will become the all-time top-grossing foreign-language film in the U.S. Its current gross is $ 19,852,513 and has to better $ 20,238,100, the amount Variety calculated “I Am Curious (Yellow)” earned back in 1969.

The “Curious” gross is, like all pre-1982 releases, an estimate based upon rentals, the methodology of that day. Miramax, “Like Water’s” distrib actually thought the film had broken the record some time back. But translating rentals — the money returned to the distributor after an exhibitor has sliced off his portion of the gate — into box office is a very precarious process.

Variety used to convert all rentals into gross using a consistent formula. More recently, a new arithmetic was devised that recognized that indies simply do not have the clout to recoup as much as the majors. One can see the difference, for instance, when comparing the rental/box office of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “I Am Curious,” both 1969 releases. “Butch,” based on rentals of $ 45.9 million, winds up with a gross of $ 97.9 million, while the Swedish delight earned its $ 20.2 million from rentals of $ 8.5 million.

A rough rule of thumb is that majors collect close to 50 cents on the dollar and indies are nearer to 40 cents. It’s an equation that holds true even today.

But getting back to that approaching record, it was almost scuttled by another unforeseen element. Miramax was set to mount a concerted Oscar campaign for the Mexican film when it discovered the movie was ineligible. The fine print in the foreign-language category states that any film submitted in that section can only qualify in other areas in the submission year.

The catch is that you have to be commercially released in the U.S. to be considered in other categories. This is classic Catch-22 fare. “Like Water” repped Mexico in 1992 but opened in America a year later. Based on Oscar rules, even if it was the most brilliant film ever made, it could never compete. So much for equal opportunity.

Miramax will push ahead in late April with a major relaunch of Arau’s hit on some 150 screens. The special run could be dubbed a for-your-record-book-consideration campaign. Like Universal’s push to put “Parenthood” in the $ 100 million club (Daily Variety, April 5), you have to finally admit that being this close and not establishing a new record would definitely be very bad business.

SOM’ ENCHANTED EVENING: It never ceases to amaze how Hollywood loves to discover talent in the most unconventional fashion. Take the case of TriStar’s upcoming “Cops and Robbersons” scribe Bernie Somers.

The thirtysomething scribbler grew up in Groton, Conn., best known as a Navy (and specifically submarine) base and building area. He freely admits that he was destined for an assembly line job.

Instead, a piece of fiction he wrote caught the attention of a visiting professor from New York University. It made a palpable impression on the teacher , who paved the way for Somers to enter the dramatic writing program, despite Somers’ miserable academic grades and not having taken college entrance exams.

He fell in with the film school crowd and had an early script optioned at a studio. That, in turn, caught the attention of then-talent agent Dan Halstead, who signed him on as a client. Somers has been working steadily for five years but “Cops and Robbersons” is the first of his scripts to be made.

“It’s great,” he says. “It makes what you do almost seem legitimate. But I’m still not prepared to move out here permanently. I’ve gotten used to being a New Yorker.”

ACLOCKWORK TREKKIE: There’s almost nothing more sacred that the secrecy of a “Star Trek” plot. So, you have to be taken aback when Malcolm McDowell says matter-of-factly, “I get to kill Kirk.”

Captains Kirk and Picard are bothaboard Paramount’s “Star Trek: Generations” with McDowell cast as the villain, Dr. Saran. The actor maintains, “He’s not a heavy, he’s a scientist who believes he’s doing the right thing. He may be misguided but he’s not bad.”

One should also remember that Spock was killed off in the second bigscreen Trek feature –“The Wrath of Khan”– and still managed to return in the subsequent episodes. One rumor around the lot is that Kirk gets to die several times in the new venture, but just like Freddy or Jason, keeps coming back for more.

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