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Studios Still Seafaring… Stone Settles At Cinergi

“Waterworld” might have been expected to affect Hollywood execs the way “Jaws” affected beachgoers, making them deathly afraid of going into the water. Although the price tag on the logistically challenged Kevin Costner pic might hit $175 million before it’s through, studio films with watery plots are popping up all over.

Warner Bros, has just made a deal to acquire the rights to the 1987 Michael Crichton novel “Sphere” for Barry Levinson to direct, sources said.

In “Sphere,” a group of scientists are taken by the Navy on a secret underwater mission to explore an alien spaceship. The vessel turns out to be an American ship returned through time from the future, encased by an alien sphere. The scientists get stranded in the deep because of violent storms on the ocean surface, and the sphere begins to work on their minds.

Filming “Sphere” could be a challenge rivaling the shooting of the 1989 James Cameron Fox film “The Abyss,” which shot largely underwater in an enclosed tank and went about 40% beyond its original budget.

“Sphere” marks the second recent WB collaboration for Crichton and Levinson, who directed the author’s “Disclosure.” It caps a startling spurt of activity for the author that includes co-creating TV’s top-rated Warner Bros, series, “ER,” scripting the Jan De Bont-directed WB-Universal tornado pic “Twister” and seeing his “Congo” novel become a Paramount pic.

Crichton’s currently finishing the book sequel to his “Jurassic Park.”

“Sphere” won’t be the only upcoming feature with a wet crew. Universal, which financed “Waterworld,” just hired “Crocodile Dundee” star Paul Hogan for its screen adaptation of “Flipper,” while Touchstone producer David Hoberman paid $1 million for the Paul Garrison novel “Ice and Sun,” in which a man chases a tanker, which contains his kidnapped family, to China. And MGM’s got veteran water scribe Peter Benchley adapting “Sea Hunt.”

Should Hollywood be afraid of the water? Almost everyone who’s made a water pic seems to get seasick just discussing it. One battle-scarred studio vet said that while a water setting can give a film the feeling of tension, fright, claustrophobia and thrills, those emotions are guaranteed to assault executives and creatives trying to bring the project in on budget. The unpredictable elements of weather and wind and safety hazards make water shoots as perilous as swimming with cement shoes.

Benchley, whose novels “Jaws” and “The Deep” were both water-based success stories, said the key is writing prose that’s economical to film. “When you write one of these things, you should be careful to write something with cover, something that’s not out in the open, maybe something that can be done in a tank, because it’s enormously easy for my magic fingers to type a scene with water and animals, then have the director read it, look at me and say, ‘Why do you hate me so much?'”

Benchley recalled that “Jaws” had Universal executives in hysterics when its $2.5 million budget went to $8 million. That overage would have barely covered the catering bill on “Waterworld.” Still, Universal’s TV division is discussing an NBC telepic adaptation of Benchley’s 1991 novel, “Beast,” about a giant sea squid saga.

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