Lofty U.S. plans for Euro pic

The $ 55 million sci-fi epic called “Stargate” is either one of the boldest ventures yet for Euro-financed movies or an example of a company sticking its neck out too far. It all depends on how you look at it.

Within the next two weeks the answer may become clear — an answer that is bound to affect the future of the newly reshuffled management of Canal Plus, the French pay TV giant.

Last week, Pierre Lescure replaced Canal Plus prexy Andre Rousselet, who walked out after a boardroom battle that gave more control of the company to Havas, the powerful ad agency. (Daily Variety Feb. 15, 17.)

A former TV anchor, the 48-year-old Lescure must now confront, among myriad other problems, the unique case of a picture that somehow took on a life of its own.

In its first incarnation, “Stargate” was a $ 42 million movie that Canal Plus would fund through its newly reorganized U.S. partner, Carolco. In every previous venture involving the two entities, a Stateside distribber was designated before production and much of the project’s cost was defrayed.

Somewhere along the way, however, two things happened to “Stargate.” First, a new, more realistic budget of $ 55 million was drawn up. Second, the decision was made to go it alone without a U.S. partner.

“Stargate” is not a routine launch: Co-scripted and directed by “Universal Soldier” helmer Roland Emmerich, the film is one of the most ambitious sci-fi pix of the decade, combining elements of “Star Wars,””Dune” and “Back to the Future” in a narrative that shuttles from 8,000 B.C. to the present and then to a future galaxy.

Kurt Russell was paid $ 7 million — more than twice his price at the time — to star as an archaeology professor whose search for the meaning of an ancient text sends him on an interplanetary, time-traveling expedition to save the Earth from destruction.

The film could turn out to be one of the summer’s hottest pictures. That is, if it can find a U.S. distribber who needs a hot summer movie.

Among other F/X-driven summer product are James Cameron’s Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “True Lies” at Fox and Universal’s “The Shadow.” But industryites estimate that, scene for scene, “Stargate’s” F/X count is higher than anybody’s.

The past two years have yielded a product reel and a three-hour rough cut. In a few weeks, Carolco plans to show an edited reel with temp sound and F/X to the majors.

“The Europeans have not mastered the fine art of laying off a picture during principal photography,” says one top agent. In many cases, he notes, a canny producer will put together a reel, jazz it up with temp sound and lively effects and then take it to a distributor under the aura of conspiratorial secrecy. “Only you will see it,” is the usual pitch. Often this technique results in a hefty pre-sale.

But even if there are takers for the finished “Stargate,” insiders point out that few studios have a hole in their 1994 sked big enough to give the pic the summer slot its size demands and still do it justice with exhibitors, who may not have enough screens.

Because MGM/UA has one of the most flexible skeds in town, insiders have Leo pegged as one of the front-runners for the pic — particularly since studio owner Credit Lyonnais, another powerful French player, has close ties with Canal Plus and could lobby heavily for a pickup of the film.

Canal Plus execs initially hoped to shop “Stargate” before cameras started rolling — a tactic that can net a larger overall profit if the property is dynamite, but also sink it in a heartbeat if it isn’t. So far, no domestic banner has boarded the French space shuttle.

But sources close to the film say Carolco chairman Mario Kassar has already made quite a dent pre-selling the pic in overseas territories for Carolco — reminiscent of his meaty overseas distrib deals for “First Blood” (the first Rambo picture) before a U.S. deal for the film was in place.

Shot mostly in Yuma, Ariz., for 14 weeks, the pic also stars James Spader, “The Crying Game’s” Jaye Davidson and 16,000 extras acting in set pieces of what sources say are of “astounding” magnitude. Davidson reportedly pocketed $ 1 million for the job.

Staying clear of costly studio facilities, the production picked an unusual soundstage, moving into the huge egg-shaped dome in Long Beach that was built to house Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose megaplane, which has since been moved to Oregon.

Part of the reason “Stargate” stayed so long in the hangar, insiders explain, was micromanagement by Paris-based Canal Plus reps. All that went away, sources say, when cameras started to roll.

Wherever it lands, “Stargate” is pulling out all the F/X stops, aiming for the ultimate experience: Kassar has gushed to friends that the pic has the biggest sets since Cecil DeMille’s 1934 extravaganza “Cleopatra.”

Though skeptics peg Canal Plus’ “Stargate” trek as overpriced folly, sources at the company say U.S. president of operations Olivier Granier is “very pleased , both from a creative and financial point of view.”

Sources on the international film sales front say that, although it looks like Canal Plus can offload the pricey pic domestically, French brass have reined in U.S.-based production until the “Stargate” B.O. numbers come in.

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