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‘Day’ spikes Fox’s year Fox parts total some whole

HIGH POINTS: “Independence Day” showed Hollywood that Fox could produce and market a blockbuster as well as any other studio. And during the same play period that “Day” was ascending to box office Valhalla, Fox 2000 had its debut release with “Courage Under Fire” and Fox Searchlight basked in the reflected glow of Liv Tyler’s luminous performance in “Stealing Beauty.” This triptych of films was a reminder that the three-year quest by News Corp. chief operating officer and president Peter Chernin and Fox chairman and CEO Bill Mechanic to launch four film divisions was finally paying dividends.

“You’re always going to have hits and misses, but what’s especially gratifying is that the machine that we have been building for three years is finally working,” Chernin said. “We may not have been first in market share, but when you divide our total box office by the number of films we released, we are by far the most profitable studio on a per-picture basis. And that’s the name of the game.”

And the Fox mandate of making either big actioners or quirky pics under $20 million paid off with “Independence Day” and “Broken Arrow” leading the pyrotechnical charge. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox’s president of marketing Bob Harper and his team showed that by properly targeting the right demographic, such low-budget films as “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” can earn at least four times their production budgets during a domestic theatrical runs.

Another high point for Chernin and Mechanic, who at the end of the year was made Fox chairman and CEO, was getting a high yield from Fox-based producers. Art Linson generated two potentially highly commercial releases for this year with the Anthony Hopkins/Alec Baldwin thriller “Bookworm” (which David Mamet scripted) and the Gwyneth Paltrow/Ethan Hawke retelling of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” John Davis’ Davis Entertainment will deliver two family comedies: “Out to Sea” and “Dr. Dolittle.” And stars with housekeeping deals such as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan helped fill the pipeline in ’96 with “That Thing You Do!” and “Courage Under Fire,” respectively.

LOW POINTS: Haste did make waste for Fox in 1996 on titles like “Chain Reaction.” While all the elements were in place — Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman as leads and “The Fugitive” director Andy Davis in the helmer’s chair — the studio greenlit the movie before execs felt its script was ready to go. “We’re no longer in the position of having to rush movies into production when the scripts are not ready,” Mechanic said. “After all it’s not about how fast you’re going, but how well you’re going.”

OUTLOOK FOR 1997: Thanks to a bloodless transition from Chernin to Mechanic’s regime in December and a surfeit of event movies already in production, Fox president of production Tom Rothman and Fox 2000’s Laura Ziskin have had plenty of time to focus on putting together a few big titles for late 1997 and early ’98. Some high-lights from Fox’s development include a “Planet of the Apes” remake that Graham Yost (“Speed”) is currently writing for James Cameron to produce. The studio is still negotiating with Bruce Willis for a fourth “Die Hard” installment, and an “X-Files” movie is also in the offing.

For holiday 1997, the studio is bullish on locking up Angela Bassett for “When Stella Got Her Groove Back,” an-other adaptation of a Terry McMillan bestseller.

Several Marvel Comics characters could bring their patented brand of action to the screen in 1998 as Chris Columbus is committed to directing “The Fantastic Four” and Bryan Singer is set to direct “The X Men.”

“We have a 1997 slate that includes projects from producer-directors like James Cameron, Chris Columbus and Jan De Bont as well as edgier directors like Danny Boyle (“A Life Less Ordinary”), Lee Tamahori (“Bookworm”), Al-fonso Cuaron (“Great Expectations”) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Alien Resurrection”),” Rothman said. “After a year in which we had hits with both ‘Independence Day’ and Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ it’s clear that audiences crave originality and originality can come from anywhere.”

Fox 2000 will continue to follow its formula of character-driven material with Carl Franklin (“One False Move”) set to direct a thriller about spy Aldrich Ames; John M. Smith (“Dangerous Minds”) is attached to “A Cool Dry Place”; and David Fincher is in the early stages of bringing the book “Fight Club” to the bigscreen. Nora Ephron, Gary Trudeau, David E. Kelley, Alan J. Pakula and Ed Zwick are also readying projects for 1998. And Mike Newell is in discussions with the studio about directing an adaptation of “Last Train to Memphis” with Leonardo Di Caprio mentioned for the role of young Elvis Presley.

“It was very gratifying to launch the division with two movies (like) ‘Courage Under Fire’ and ‘One Fine Day ‘that were signatures that defined what Fox 2000 is about,” said Ziskin. “Both films were character-driven and both had major movie stars in the leads.”

Fox Family Films, under its president Chris Meledandri, spent a good portion of 1996 in getting its first animated release, “Anastasia,” ready for a fall release. A second title, a futuristic retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” is also in the works from Fox’s Phoenix-based animation facility.

“Animation has taken up 75% percent of our time this past year,” Meledandri noted. “Now we finally have time to focus on live-action again.”

Besides event films like a remake of “Fantastic Voyage” with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin set to produce and the comic book hero Silver Surfer on the development roster, Fox Family is also putting together several comedies, highlighted by a “Green Acres” movie with Bette Midler mentioned for the Eva Gabor role.

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