The continually escalating costs of event pictures have made it more difficult than ever to run a studio. Execs, under extreme pressure to keep costs within the stratosphere, find themselves tantalized by casting combinations, but aghast at the price tags.

Just last month, United Artists decided not to renew its option on “Higgins and Beech,” a Korean War drama starring Richard Gere and Michelle Pfeiffer, to be directed by Jon Amiel. It was the first high-profile project acquired by Frank Mancuso.

And two studios are preparing for agonizing choices, as Columbia has to make a decision on the Jerry Zucker-directed labor of love, “First Knight,” while Fox struggles to keep its high-profile virus pic, “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” from melting over the high demands of the talent involved.

Reports are that “Higgins and Beech” was beached because the logistically challenging prospect of filming in Korea or China to dramatize the relationship of two reporters brought the budget to between $ 40 million and $ 50 million. Despite the killer cast, studio topper John Calley made a hard call.

At Fox, execs are already holding their breath that the costs on the James Cameron-directed Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “True Lies” doesn’t go beyond the approximately $ 120 million level it’s at now — with Fox holding the bag on overages. Now, the studio’s desperately trying to keep together the Lynda Obst-produced “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” with Ridley Scott all but gone as director and Robert Redford still attached asstar, pending rewrites.

Fox’s not-so-simple task: Sign Redford (he’s asking $ 10 million against 15% of the gross); make the complicated deal to secure Scott and his new company, RCS/PMP Films; snag a bankable female star; finance the movie; and then leave room to turn a profit. A source said the film will get made, but Scott’s deal seemed to be on life-support late last week.

It’s no easier at Columbia. Last year, Jerry Zucker tried to mount “First Knight,” about King Arthur. The pic was built around William Baldwin, but execs wanted big stars — and a rewrite — and the film was put off for a year. Now, Zucker’s got Sean Connery ready to play King Arthur, Richard Gere pining to play Lancelot, and a killer script by William Nicholson.

But he’s also got a budget that could hit $ 60 million. That would be a record price for a Zucker brothers movie with no Leslie Nielsen role — and no laugh track.

Timing is everything. It has caused Michael Mann to step out of the James Dean biopic at Warner Bros. Buzz hears that after Mann worked with scripter Israel Horovitz’s draft and met with such actors as Gary Oldman, he fell hard for Leonardo DiCaprio.

Mann felt the actor’s physicality would be perfect after about a year of seasoning. Mann figured he’d fill the time with a pic he’d written called “Heat.” It’s set up at WB, to star Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

But Pacino’s next pic, the Oliver Stone-directed “Noriega,” got pushed back to the fall, so his sked clashes with De Niro’s plans to do “Casino” with Martin Scorsese at Universal.

Buzz hears the James Dean pic will get another director.

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