Fox might have the film to beat this summer with James Cameron’s “True Lies,” and the studio put itself in position for another potential blockbuster for next summer when Bruce Willisaccepted a pay-or-play offer for an estimated $ 15 million to star in “Die Hard 3,” a co-production between Fox and Cinergi, with John McTiernan directing.

The film, which will be set in New York and is expected to be a $ 60 million undertaking, was salvaged by a strong rewrite by Jonathan Hensleigh.

The project was on the rocks for weeks as Hensleigh scribbled, execs at Fox and Cinergi squirmed and both McTiernan and Willis put other offers on hold until the rewrite came in.

The project came together hurriedly when both Willis and McTiernan, who directed the original in 1988, found themselves available after the director dropped out of “Captain Blood” at Warner Bros. (Daily Variety, Dec. 16, 1993).

Attempts to find a storyline for hero cop John McClane proved difficult because of all the “Die Hard” copycat films, such as “Under Siege,” which beached a plan for the third “Die Hard” to be staged with terrorists on a cruise ship. The problem was solved when Fox dusted off a pricey spec script called “Simon Says,” giving its writer, Hensleigh, one month to redraft the story to fit the “Die” cast. The script, which Fox production prexy Tom Jacobson had bought separately for $ 500,000 against $ 1 million for producer Robert Lawrence , is an actioner about a cop and a black activist who team up to foil an arsonist who leaves a trail of mayhem around New York.

But one month wasn’t long enough, and the draft turned in by Hensleigh didn’t sell Willis and McTiernan. The female gender of the activist was one problem. All parties agreed to scrap a planned spring start and gave the writer one last crack at the script, with a lot of notes.

Hensleigh turned in another draft Friday. Willis read it over the weekend, and suddenly “Die Hard 3″ was on. Shooting begins in late June, and a summer 1995 release is expected. As the pieces fell into place, Fox and Cinergi were wise not to have jumped hastily into production with a flawed script, just for the sake of making a Christmas delivery date.

Fox has domestic distributionand Japan. Buena Vista Intl. and Summit Entertainment, with Cinergi, will get the remaining world territories.

FOX EXPLORES PIC EXPANSION: Disney’s not the only studio gearing up with multiple divisions to crank out a greater volume of films. Fox is already planning to establish a ministudio, to handle upscale fare, as well as a family pictures division. Now, Dish hears, Fox topper Peter Chernin’s interviewing prospective execs to head a new autonomous division that would complement Fox’s existing operation. The hope is that different creative execs at the new division would bring a fresh viewpoint.

Like Turner Pictures, the studio’s captivated by the idea of having a woman head the division, Dish hears. No comment from the studio.

FOX GOES FOR DISH HAT TRICK: Another major project at Fox that has gone through some well-publicized fits and starts is starting to fall nicely into place. Ridley Scott is set to direct “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” the Lynda Obst/Mimi Polk-produced virus pic that the studio hopes to have in production before summer.

Robert Redford is awaiting final delivery of a script before he commits, and Richard Friedenberg, brought in to rewrite, stepped out when his ideas didn’t jibe with the producers’ vision. Original scribe Jim Hart is expected to turn in a rewrite shortly. Dish hears the studio’s in talks with Jodie Foster to play alongside Redford in the fact-based story of two Army biologists who try to contain a highly infectious virus in Washington, D.C. The virus pic has found itself under a microscope because of feverish competition with a similarly themed Arnold Kopelson-produced pic, “Outbreak,” with Oscar-winning scribe Ted Tally rewriting and director Wolfgang Petersen attached.

CREATIVE CASTOFFS: The long-awaited script rewrite for Warner Bros.’ adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County” is coming in from Richard LaGravenese shortly. Unfortunately, Dish hears that Steven Spielberg has backed out of an earlier plan to direct. Spielberg pledged to take a year off from working after his unprecedented year of “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List.” Warner Bros., which still hopes to get Clint Eastwood to play the photographer, is looking for another director. Sydney Pollack bailed earlier.

At Hollywood Pictures, Warren Beatty, who falls in love with projects the way he once did women, only to cool when it comes time to commit, has done it again. When he wouldn’t give a firm commitment for a film prepping for a summer shoot, Beatty, Hollywood Pictures and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer agreed to part ways. So Beatty won’t play the lead sub commander in “Crimson Tide,” which Tony Scott will direct. The wish list now includes Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.

SAGANSKY STAYING?: Thanks a lot, Jonathan Dolgen, is what CBS Entertainment prexy Jeff Sagansky might be saying after the Sony exec surprised everyone by landing in Stanley Jaffe’s job at Paramount, a post that seemed destined for Sagansky.

The betting now is that Sagansky will ascend, leaving room for his No. 2, Peter Tortorici, to become entertainment prexy. Dish hears Sagansky stays put until he finds that next move, which most likely will be to start his own company. Tortorici is moving apace to assemble his own team.

Despite the uncertainty, CBS’ fall series offerings look strong, including futuristic sci-fi sitcom “Galaxy Beat.” The pilot, created by Alan Spencer (“Sledge Hammer!”) and chock-full of special effects, cost around $ 1.7 million, which is big bucks for a sitcom.

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