NAME: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

DESCRIPTION: Stars of the highest-grossing independent film franchise.

LAST SEEN: Waiting for their agent to call.

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers may be battling “Pocahontas” and “The Indian in the Cupboard” for kid audiences this summer, but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one-time karate-kick champs of bigscreens from coast to coast, are not on the bill.

After three theatrical hits that grossed a total of $260 million domestically and a deal announced last year by New Line for a fourth sequel, those pizza-chomping, Renaissance-monikered reptiles – Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo – have shown no sign of returning, much to some parents’ relief.

Not so fast, dude.

A shift of allegiances and licensing agreements has brought the Turtles under the wing of Motion Picture Corp. of America (“Dumb and Dumber,” “Threesome”), which is seeking a studio partner to re-launch the franchise.

The comeback, if it happens, will be a dramatic rescue from a place in Hollywood known to many suffering characters, fictional and otherwise, as development hell.

It all began when first-time screenwriters Christian Ford and Roger Soffer were auditioned for the Turtle job on the basis of a previously unproduced screenplay and their pitch: four Turtles and a baby. New Line liked the pitch. Turtles creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird hated it, but loved their screenplay. The scribes were hired.

Ford and Soffer worked closely with Eastman and Laird to come up with a script. “We are developing a new vision for the Turtles that will give them a new attitude,” announced New Line prez-CEO Michael Lynne exactly one year ago. A start date was scheduled for early summer 1995.

Ford and Soffer wrote “a bazillion drafts,” according to their agent, Rima Greer. The difficult part, according to inside sources, was conflicting signals between the writers, the Turtles’ creators and New Line execs. At one point, screenwriting guru Robert McKee was hired by Eastman and Laird to contribute script revision notes. McKee says the problem was basic. “Action-adventure fantasy is the single most difficult genre to write,” he explains. Sources say everybody eventually was satisfied with the script, but the greenlit project still had no greenlight.

The reason the Turtles became mired, according to various sources close to the project: New Line’s marketing department “ran the numbers,” as they say in marketing lingo, and decided, in view of the Turtles’ declining box office (the third pic took in $42.3 million in 1993), not to risk a fourth try.

The Turtles script went into turnaround, New Line’s option on the license lapsed, and now MPCA has picked it up, with F/X designer and former Turtles costume creator Eric Allard attached to direct from the original script.

“We need $12 million to do this right,” says Allard.

New Line declines to comment.

Mark Freedman, whose Surge Entertainment handles licensing for the creatures’ creators, believes New Line’s failure to launch a fourth Turtle installment is no reflection on the property’s value. He points out that the Turtles’ 5-year-old CBS TV series has been renewed for the fall season and the dudes are thriving in syndication.

MPCA topper Brad Krevoy is gung-ho on the hard-backed team and their character franchise possibilities: “The Turtles are evergreen,” he says. “No pun intended.”

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