WB wags NL’s ‘Dog’

New Line Cinema, in its new incarnation under the Time Warner banner, is learning the hard way about dealing with big brother Warner Bros.

In a series of events as convoluted as a Rube Goldberg contraption, New Line made a deal last year with Warner to borrow director Barry Levinson from his pre-production pay-or-play commitment for the high-tech big budgeter “Sphere,” starring Dustin Hoffman.

New Line snagged Levinson to quickly helm “Wag the Dog,” a small-scale political satire also starring Hoffman, along with Robert De Niro, Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche and Denis Leary.

Levinson and Hoffman were free because “Sphere” temporarily shut down in late October over budget concerns.

Warners, however, wouldn’t allow Levinson to freely step in for its sister company’s project. As part of the deal, the studio stipulated that New Line not release “Wag the Dog” until 60 days after “Sphere” was in theaters.

“Sphere,” which started production again under Levinson in March, was slated to open at Christmas, while another Hoffman pic from Warner Bros., “Mad City,” had a Nov. 7 opening.

Levinson slapped “Wag the Dog” together in 29 days, one full day ahead of schedule. Buzz was so strong on the pic that New Line moved to release it this year. There was talk of Oscar contention, and New Line had a distribution opening in September.

Warner Bros. chairmen and co-CEOs Robert Daly and Terry Semel almost immediately nixed the idea, citing the contractual deal to hold off 60 days. Insiders said Warner was concerned with possible conflicts with “Sphere” and “Mad City.”

So, according to sources, New Line prexy and chief operating officer Michael Lynne made an impassioned appeal to Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin to let it distribute the pic when the studio needed it most. New Line was equally concerned about competing with “Primary Colors,” another higher-profile politico satire that would conceivably open next spring.

Levin, siding with Daly and Semel, turned Lynne down flat.

Now, New Line may be stuck wagging its dog indefinitely. Sources say “Sphere,” carrying a budget upwards of $100 million, may not make its Christmas target date and could be delayed until next year. And “Wag the Dog” still can’t open until after “Sphere’s” bow.

A Warner Bros. spokesman confirmed that “Sphere” is still on track for a Dec. 12 opening. According to New Line, “Wag the Dog” is set for a Feb. 20 bow.

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