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Canton nabs DiPego script

NEW YORK — In his first major deal since hanging his producing shingle at Warner Bros., former Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos. chairman Mark Canton’s Canton Co. has pacted for the next script written by Gerald DiPego, after WB agreed to pay low seven-figures in the blind script deal.

The deal marks the first million-dollar script payday for DiPego, whose long career took a quantum leap with the 1996 summer sleeper “Phenomenon.” DiPego could hardly be considered an overnight success: The 56-year-old has been writing since 1973. Before “Phenomenon,” his last feature credit came with the 1981 drama “Sharkey’s Machine,” starring Burt Reynolds, who was Hollywood’s top box office star at the time.

DiPego on a roll

But after turning out TV movies, five novels and movie scripts that piled up on development shelves, DiPego has been on a roll the past two years. “Ishmael,” the script he wrote for “Phenomenon” producers Barbara Boyle and Michael Taylor, will begin filming under the Touchstone label in January, with Jon Turteltaub directing Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr.

“Whispers,” a script he wrote based on a short story by Irwin Shaw, looms likely at Touchstone with Barry Sonnenfeld directing Will Smith. DiPego just finished adapting the Nicholas Sparks novel “Message in a Bottle” for WB and producer Denise DiNovi, and two other DiPego scripts, “Mutant Message Down Under” and “The Protector,” are also verging on green lights.

Canton is also enjoying a second-act resurgence. He exited the WB executive suite for the allure of greenlight power at Columbia in 1991 and later added the TriStar reins. For a while it seemed Canton’s five-year reign would be best remembered for his decision to OK the first $20 million star payday for Jim Carrey in the disappointing “Cable Guy.”

But now the powerhouse performance of greenlit films that Canton left behind when he exited Sony is putting a new shine on his reputation. “Jerry Maguire,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Men in Black,” “Air Force One” and “Anaconda” have grossed just under $1 billion worldwide, and counting, for SPE.

Inside track

Canton’s key creative exec John Goldstone worked with DiPego on “Whispers,” which allowed the Canton Co. to win a deal that was the subject of much intramural sparring between WB-based producers.

Canton wouldn’t comment, but DiPego was happy to discuss how much he’s enjoying the second act of his long career.

“I’ve had a long career writing mostly TV movies, and every couple of years, somebody hired me to write a feature or I’d sell one, but they never got made,” said DiPego. ” ‘Phenomenon’ was a turning point for me, in that I wrote exactly what I wanted to. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve not only gotten better, but braver. I care less about the marketplace, or what people might be expecting from me.”

DiPego hopes to set up and adapt his recent coming-of-age novel “Cheevey,” and he’s excited to have his 28-year-old son Justin adapting his early sci-fi work, “Parallels.” Mostly, he’s getting a kick out of the newfound respect that success brings: After years of trying, now his movie scripts are getting filmed much the same way he wrote them.

“It makes me laugh a little, but I find people are a lot more deferential to me,” he said. “It would probably go to my head if I was younger.”

DiPego is repped by Gayla Nethercott of Broder Kurland Webb Uffner.

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