LAS VEGAS — Filmmaking brothers Allen and Albert Hughes are set to direct a biopic of Howard Hughes at Universal, with Johnny Depp attached to star as the once-dashing billionaire who eventually became a germophobic recluse.

The Hughes brothers, said sources, have set Terry Hayes to adapt “Empire: The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes,” the bio written by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. The directing duo sparked to Hayes after he scripted their next film, “From Hell,” the story of Jack the Ripper for New Line. Hayes also has written the script for the Warner Bros. adaptation of the Ray Bradbury book “Fahrenheit 451.”

The Hughes brothers will produce the billionaire biopic with Kevin Messick, president of their U-based production company Underworld Entertainment.

Depp, last seen as the title character in the Mike Newell-directed “Donnie Brasco,” will have his hands full with Hughes. A millionaire at age 18, the handsome Hughes became a celebrity playboy, famous for producing such films as “Hells Angels” and “The Outlaw,” meanwhile becoming the most famous pilot since Charles Lindbergh. He romanced great Hollywood beauties like Jean Harlow and Katharine Hepburn.

But Hughes is also well remembered for his descent into a world of isolation. His downfall began when he survived a near-fatal airplane accident and became hooked on prescription drugs. By the time he died, he was a long-haired, long-fingernailed wreck who was bedridden much of the time and developed a debilitating fear of germs and diseases. According to the book, his arms were spotted with broken pieces of hypodermic needles embedded in his skin.

Hayes will script the story to have it ready for the Hughes brothers to direct when they finish “From Hell,” sources said. The brothers would not comment. Depp is repped by ICM’s Tracey Jacobs.

MONTY” MEN’S OSCAR DILEMMA: Producer Uberto Pasolini and director Peter Cattaneo are going from “The Full Monty” to full-term pregnancies, and it has created a potential Oscar-day dilemma for the duo. The Fox Searchlight film, which has grossed $220 million worldwide on a $3.5 million budget, has emerged as the underdog of the Oscar proceedings.

Producer Pasolini and helmer Cattaneo, both Oscar nominees, would like to be at the March 23 ceremony. Trouble is, both men have babies due that week: Pasolini’s due date is exactly the day of the Oscars, Cattaneo’s the day before. Since their very pregnant wives live in England, a rush escape isn’t possible.

Cattaneo is a first-time dad and second-time Oscar nominee, while Pasolini is a second-time dad and first-time nominee. The decision of whether they’ll wear tuxes or medical scrubs will depend on birthing developments that won’t be known until the last minute.

Workers at Fox Searchlight have already scheduled seats on every flight in case either dad-to-be needs to make a quick trip. If Pasolini is forced to watch from the delivery room, he can always hold the Oscar that his wife, “Emma” composer Rachel Portman, won last year as he coaxes her through the delivery process.

WEB OF INTRIGUE AT SHOWEST: The tangle over screen rights to “Spider-Man” is near an end, though Fox, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and MGM are battling to the wire. Fox is said to have the inside track in this complicated process in hopes of making it a James Cameron vehicle. This is despite Fox losing rights to “Terminator 3″ to Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar, even though the studio had deals nearly done with Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton.

Fox, after losing “Independence Day” duo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich to Sony, has been as aggressive in its pursuit of “Spider-Man” as it has distribution rights to George Lucas’s “Star Wars” trilogy. Indeed, rumors are hot and heavy that Fox was moving to tie up those rights, and that a teaser trailer could show up on its “X-Files” film this summer.

Cameron has long wanted to adapt the web-slinger for the bigscreen, and has already done a 60-page treatment, with names like Jim Carrey and Leonardo DiCaprio rumored as possibles to play the title role. Also intriguing is a rumor that if Sony prevails, it will deed the spider franchise to its “Godzilla” team of Devlin and Emmerich.

A WELLS-SPRING OF TALENT?: Audrey Wells, who wrote “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” and co-wrote “George of the Jungle,” has made a deal to make her directorial debut on “Guinevere,” a new script that has been optioned by Millennium Films, which is joining forces with Bandeira Entertainment. It’s about a young woman who becomes the protege of a volatile photographer in San Francisco; the older man becomes her lover and teaches the 21-year-old about life and art.

Jonathan King will produce with Millennium head Brad Weston, with Bandeira’s Beau Flynn and Stefan Simchowitz exec producing.

Millennium, which will fully finance the under-$8 million film, has been reconfigured to make its mark with strong scripts and emerging filmmakers. Giving Wells the chance to direct got Millennium the deal. Pay-or-play offers are out to cast, with an April start date eyed.

Wells is repped by Endeavor and lawyered by Steve Warren and Jeff Frankel at Hansen, Jacobson, Teller & Hoberman.

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