Studio halts $100 mil De Bont pic

In the most recent case of a studio applying the brakes to a big-budget event pic, last week Fox 2000 put a hold on Jan De Bont’s $100 million-plus event pic “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the studio confirmed Friday.

While a high-level Fox executive on Thursday said the studio had “pulled the plug” on the project, on Friday a Fox spokeswoman said, “It’s not true. They’re working on another rewrite of the script and will address it at a later date. They hope they can still make the movie.”

Neither Fox 2000 president Laura Ziskin nor Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Bill Mechanic could be reached for comment.

The film originally had been scheduled for a mid-July production start. The Fox spokeswoman said there is no alternate start date at this time.

A source close to De Bont said, “There has been a slowing down, but it had no cast yet and did not have a greenlight.” While he added that the decision to put the brakes on the project had nothing to do with the budget, the source said most execs at the studio “liked the script.”

The screenplay was originally penned by W.D. Richter and was given to Mark Protosevich for a polish, then had been sent back to Richter for some touchups. It’s not clear if a new writer has been hired.

Both the studio and De Bont’s camp say they are optimistic the sci-fi Western — for which De Bont had done extensive preparation, including location scouting and design and model work — will come back together at a later date with a script and budget with which Fox is comfortable.

Sources said there is a possibility, however, De Bont might turn his attention to another project such as Paramount’s “Pathfinder” or perhaps “Minority Report,” another project he has been developing at Fox.

De Bont has been through this before. He was the original director on “Godzilla,” but left the Sony project when the screenplay he turned in was budgeted at $150 million. De Bont went on to direct “Speed 2″ while Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich shaped a new script for “Godzilla.”

Despite continuous script and budget meetings over the past few months, at which De Bont was asked to trim the budget of the sci-fi epic, until recently the film always looked like it would get made. But De Bont — whose last picture was “Speed 2,” which went wildly overbudget and was a significant writedown for Fox in 1997 — is known for shooting big, and the film would require substantial special effects.

Though John Travolta was offered the lead (and passed), sources said it is not necessarily a star-driven vehicle and could be cast like De Bont’s previous projects “Twister” or the first “Speed,” with actors whose fees did not explode the above-the-line costs.

‘Star’ quality

The decision comes nearly a week after Fox announced it would be distributing the first episode of the “Star Wars” prequels during summer 1999. While Fox will only receive a reduced distribution fee from the film, it gives the studio the breathing space not to be forced to put something into production before it is ready.

Despite its phenomenal success at the box office, since the much-publicized budget overruns of “Titanic” — which followed losses from “Volcano” and “Speed 2″ — Fox has been hyper-vigilant to keep budgets from spiraling out of control. The studio has not greenlit a movie with a budget anywhere near $100 million since “Titanic.”

Growing trend

Fox’s decision mirrors actions being taken across town.

In December, less than two months before production, and unable to agree with the producers over the budget, Universal backed away from Phil Alden Robinson’s “Age of Aquarius,” to which Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas were attached to star. Also contributing to the decision were the geopolitics and logistics involved in shooting the film on location in Bosnia and the above-the-line costs of the A-list talent, which put the budget of “Aquarius” well north of $80 million.

Then, last month, two other features fell apart due to budget problems.

Faced with a $100 million budget, a first-time director and production looming just a month away, Universal halted “Hulk,” its bigscreen adaptation of the Marvel Comics series (Daily Variety, March 2, 1998).

At the time, a studio spokesman said Universal had not given up on the project, but had “just put it on the back-burner” while writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh reworked the script. The project is still up in the air.

Later in March, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the $100 million “I Am Legend,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like “Ghost Riders,” “I Am Legend” was put on hold while Ridley Scott worked on a rewrite of the script before WB officially shut it down.

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