HART SHARP ENTERTAINMENT, basking in the Oscar buzz of Kenneth Lonergan’s contemporary small-town drama, “You Can Count on Me,” has optioned rights to a historical big-city drama, Idanna Pucci’s “The Trials of Maria Barbella.”

It’s the true story of a turn-of-the century Italian immigrant who became the first woman ever sentenced to die in the electric chair and an expat American aristocrat — the author’s great-grandmother — who spearheaded a campaign to save her.

Despite the project’s broad scope, Hart Sharp production head Robert Kessel describes it as a story hinging on the sort of nuanced, personal relationship that’s become a Hart Sharp hallmark. “To us, the film tackles the great themes of women’s rights, immigration and the death penalty,” he said. “But ultimately this is the true story about an extraordinary relationship between two women from very different worlds.”

Published by the small press Four Walls Eight Windows in 1996, “Barbella” was optioned by Fox for Winona Ryder but the rights lapsed.

It’s not the first time a small production shingle has harvested material from the overstuffed production slates of a major. “Many times studios like the books they option,” said Hart Sharp partner Jeff Hart. “But once they control the rights, they are not sure how to make them at a price point, which makes sense for the scope of the book. As a result, the book just sits there.”

Hart Sharp, which plans to make three to four films from a production fund totaling $12 million (its Sundance entree, “Lift,” is from that fund), hopes that “Barbella” can be brought in at a reasonable budget. But a Victorian costumer like “Barbella” is inherently costly. Hart Sharp plans to go outside the fund for the project. It is currently out to a European co-production partner and to writers and directors.

HARPERCOLLINS PREXY Jane Friedman, who oversaw the publisher’s mergers with William Morrow and the U.K.’s Fourth Estate, and steered the house to an 85% rise in operating income, has reupped with HarperCollins for another three years.

Friedman jolted some industry insiders in 1997 when she ankled Random House after a successful run as exec veep of the Knopf publishing group. But good times followed at HarperCollins. Last year, the house put 57 titles on the New York Times bestseller list. Revenues reached $1 billion in fiscal 2000.

News Corp. deputy chief operating officer Lachlan Murdoch announced Tuesday that Friedman will oversee HarperCollins’ worldwide operations through November 2003.

SINCE STANLEY KUBRICK’S DEATH two years ago, interest has piqued over the reclusive director’s unfinished pet projects. A script for a Napoleon biopic recently surfaced on the Net. And along with “A.I.,” which has since been shot by Steven Spielberg, a project called “The Aryan Papers,” based on Louis Begley’s first novel “Wartime Lies,” was said to be in pre-production at Warner Bros.

Interest in Begley, who published “Wartime Lies” in 1991 at age 56, has suddenly picked up in Hollywood. Jack Nicholson just closed a deal to topline “About Schmidt,” the first of Begley’s novels about fictitious New York lawyer Albert Schmidt. Alexander Payne will direct “About Schmidt” for New Line.

Knopf has just published a sequel, “Schmidt Delivered,” to favorable reviews.

But ownership of “Wartime Lies” has transferred back to Warner Bros. and its future remains unclear. Sources at Warner Bros. could not say if the novel, which tells of Begley’s childhood as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland, is still in active development.

“I’m sure there are other directors out there who could make a good film. That’s what the author would want,” said agent Anne Borchardt of the Georges Borchardt agency. “There’s no point in it just sitting around.”

But that may be the fate of a novel originally bought for a now-deceased director with an unusually high degree of creative independence.

“For 30 years, Warner Bros. and Stanley had a unique relation,” said Julian Senior, longtime head of marketing for Warners Bros. theatrical in Europe, who’s worked with the director since “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “Very few people knew what other projects he was developing. It’s quite possible that other projects could surface.”

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE HOLLYWOOD producers, whose Gotham lit scouts fiercely compete for exclusive access to new books, banding together to hire a scout to service the entire industry.

But the Film Council, the U.K. organization launched in April to promote the U.K. film industry through the disbursement of lottery money and other initiatives, has done just that.

Susan Swift, a former consultant to Jonescompany, the shingle run by Robert Jones, who now heads the Council’s Premiere Production Fund, will survey the U.K. book market, serving as a matchmaker between British authors and producers.

Just as “Billy Elliot” has given new impetus to the U.K. film industry, books like the Harry Potter series and “Bridget Jones’ Diary” have rekindled interest in British writing. The council hopes to bring more such books to the attention of U.K. producers.

“One area that needs investment is development,” said council spokesperson Tina McFarling. Since U.K. producers rarely have overhead deals, the race to get projects to the screen has been too quick, she said. “We want to buy them time to develop projects a bit more before getting them onto the screen.”

THE UFO SAID TO HAVE CRASHED in Roswell, N.M., in 1947 has never ceased to excite the fevered imaginations of TV and film execs. Steve Rubin, prexy of Fast Carrier Pictures, and something of a Roswell buff, soon hopes to send another UFO careening across American screens.

His shingle has optioned “Left at East Gate,” an account of a 1980 close encounter at a U.S. Air Force base in rural England. Written by Larry Warren and Peter Robbins, the book tells how Warren, then a young Air Force cop, saw a machine descend from the clouds, then spent years trying to figure out what really happened. Rubin described the project as “The Insider” meets “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

It’s a subject that suits Rubin well. A studio and network publicist for 22 years, he grew interested in UFO research after working on Showtime’s 1993 pic “Roswell.” Rubin is now a full-time producer with a deal at Showtime. He optioned “East Gate” with private funds, and will take it into various production venues, hoping to set it up for either TV or feature treatment.

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