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Calley’s coup at UA; pricey ‘Penguins’ at NL

MIKE NICHOLS AND JOHN CALLEY, close friends and producing partners on Columbia’s “Remains of the Day,” are close to making a deal to collaborate again. Though Columbia was so bullish about Nichols’ Jack Nicholson-Michelle Pfeiffer starrer “Wolf” that it’s become the studio’s summer hopeful, Col long ago placed in turnaround Cormac McCarthy’s Knopf novel, “All the Pretty Horses,” a sprawling rite-of-passage Western set in turn-of-the-century Mexico.

Col flinched at the project because it’s high on budget, low on star power, since the stars are kids. Though Savoy hoped that the turnaround tumult would compel Nichols to direct the Knopf novel it acquired for him — Scott Smith’s “A Simple Plan”– Dish hears that Calley’s United Artists is in serious discussions to acquire “Horses,” which Nichols will direct this fall.

“Since UA’s a startup company, it makes more sense for it to take a risk on the material than Columbia,” said a source in the know. It would be the second recent coup for Calley, who was expected to play off his good standing in the community and relationships to rebuild UA.

Last week, he bought a Floyd Mutrux action spec script “Common Ground” after Mutrux gave him first crack.

POPPER’S A-POPPIN: “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” the beloved 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, is movie material for the ’90s. New Line, which has been trying to move up to A-level fare under its young honchos Michael De Luca and Richard Saperstein, will make its most expensive movie yet out of “Penguins,” which is chairman Bob Shaye’s favorite children’s book.

“Penguins” is about a house painter who, after writing letters to Arctic explorers, gets a penguin from one of them. Suddenly, he’s got a litter of beaked birds, and trains them for a stage act, only to find they’re better off in their natural habitat. The project is budgeted in the $ 20 milllion range.

The pic will be a co-production between Craig Zadan and Neil Meron of Storyline Prods. and Alex Rockwell and Brian Henson of Henson Prods. Henson will direct. Exec producers will be the Gramercy Park Group, which controlled the rights, and a script is being written now by Heidi Perlman, a vet writer of TV shows including “Cheers” and “The Simpsons.”

“Bob Shaye has long wanted to make it into a movie, and he sees this as our first big-budget, upscale, mainstream project,” said Sara Risher, NL chairman of production. “Mr. Popper’s a part we’ll be offering to a big-scale star.”

The penguins, on the other hand, will be constructed by Henson Prods., so at least they won’t be asking for gross points.

STATE’S COUP: Since most studio development execs were skiing and schmoozing at the Sundance Film Festival last week, not many spec scripts made the rounds. But because of the close proximity to President Clinton’s Jan. 25 national address, the spec script “State of the Union” did make the rounds, and has been snatched up by TriStar.

The script is by Ellen Weston, a veteran TV writer, and Joyce Brotman, previously an exec at Imagine, Disney and Paramount. The script, which was sold by their manager, Doug Chapin of Krost/Chapin, and their William Morris agent, Rob Carlson, is an actioner in the “Die Hard” mold, about terrorists who take over the Capitol Building during the State of the Union address.

Just about every member of federal government is in attendance and taken hostage — except one cabinet member, who tries to free them. TriStar exec Amy Baer beat out Arnold Kopelson at Warner Bros. for the spec, which fetched a low six figures against mid six figures, Dish hears.

SAYLES PITCH: While all the indies were at Sundance wondering if they were becoming too commercial, that patriarch of indies, John Sayles, was showing his just-completed film “The Secret of Roan Inish” exclusively to studios. Two of them are now negotiating to distribute it, Dish hears.

His film, which was shot in Ireland and based on the Irish novel “Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry,” is about a 10-year-old girl’s search for her little brother in the islands off western Ireland. She finds him in the care of seals. The producers, the Jones Entertainment Group, decided Sayles had a possible crossover hit, and gave the studios first crack.

A screening for indie distribs will be held next week — though Dish hears there was a Harvey Weinstein sighting outside the projection room when Disney had its screening. Remember, Harvey’s the guy who found a way to acquire “The Piano” months before anyone was supposed to see it. “Inish,” by the way, is a contender for competition at Cannes.

MULTIPLE CHOICE QUIZ: People mag’s Insider column reports this week that Dish’s Jan. 6 revelation that Alyssa Milano is being considered to replace Shannen Doherty on “Beverly Hills, 90210,” though now true, was inaccurate when this column reported it. Insider claims Dish’s report caused Milano to become Aaron Spelling’s new fave. Guess the truth:

A) People is right; Spelling and Milano owe Dish a casting commission.

B) Excruciatingly slow week for Insider.

C) The Insider isn’t as inside as he thinks.

Answer: It isn’t A.

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