After making her feature directing debut at MGM with the David Duchovny-Minnie Driver-starrer “Return to Me,” the studio has signed Bonnie Hunt to a two-year first-look deal at the studio. Hunt, best known for an acting resume that includes “Jerry Maguire” and “Jumanji,” may possibly follow “Return” with “Anniversary,” a comedy she has written with Don Lake, her scripting partner on “Return to Me,” which will be released in April.

” ‘Return,’ ” said MGM president Michael Nathanson, “strikes a chord with the audience, has tested the highest of any in MGM history, and it is special for us in that it came together when Chris McGurk came here. It led us to want to embark on a new deal for future movies with Bonnie.” He’s hoping that Hunt will start production this year on “Anniversary,” a comedy about a separated couple that reunites to attend the 50th anniversary party of the man’s parents. Amid the chaos that ensues, the couple falls back in love. Under her MGM deal, Hunt will have a development exec and a discretionary fund. She’s repped by CAA and attorneys Gerald Edelstein and Bill Sobel.

TURNTABLE TO ROUNDTABLE: In a development that’s as close as it gets to Lana Turner’s discovery at a drugstore counter, Shannyn Sossamon has beaten out a slew of teen stars to land the female lead role alongside Heath Ledger in the Brian Helgeland-directed medieval Columbia film “A Knight’s Tale.” The casting is astounding, given that it’s the first time Sossamon has acted. A part-time DJ, she was spinning records at a Gwyneth Paltrow’s birthday party at the Beverly Hills club Guys when she was discovered by casting director Francine Maisler, a consultant for Columbia. “She has charisma, and is unaware of just how arrestingly beautiful she is,” said Maisler. “It’s one of those fairy tale stories.” Maisler recommended that she read with established actresses for the lead. Right away, she hooked director Helgeland, who wrote the script. Two more tests and she had the role. “Everybody was knocked out by her ability and her look and we kept pushing the studio,” said Todd Black, who’s producing with Tim Van Rellim. “Finally, Amy Pascal and Matt Tolmach saw what we did and got behind her, a very brave thing to do, going with a complete unknown for a big-budget studio film.” Sossamon was repped by Endeavor and manager Jeffrey Dash at the Dash Group. Col’s got a lot riding on the film because execs believe Ledger could reach full star status playing Mel Gibson’s son in “The Patriot,” the July 4 pic that scored big numbers in its first test this week.

DOCUS DECRY SCREENINGS: The finalists for best documentary Oscar might be the best and most entertaining crop in years. But the distributors of two of the prime contenders, “On the Ropes” and “Buena Vista Social Club,” are hoping that enough voters have seen one of the other pics in the category to allow for a big field of voters.

Along with “Genghis Blues” and “Speaking in Strings,” the pics have been widely distributed in cassette form. That’s not the case for the other finalist, the Arthur Cohn-produced “One Day in September,” a docu that dissects the kidnapping and execution of members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, aided by an interview with the lone terrorist who survived.

The startling docu hasn’t yet been set for distribution, and while Cohn said the film has met its Academy screening obligations, rivals fear that it has pared down the potential voting field to as low as 200, since voters must see each finalist before casting any ballot.

“If you were an Academy member and aggressive about it, you could be sure to get your supporters to watch your film and you could win the day by keeping the viewership down,” said Artisan’s Amir Malin, who released “Buena Vista Social Club,” the Wim Wenders-directed docu about how Ry Cooder mounted U.S. concerts with long-forgotten but world-class Cuban musicians. “While I don’t think there is a deliberate intent here, there is a potential to belittle the process and significance of what the Oscar is all about.”

Wendy Lidell, veep of “On the Ropes” distributor Winstar Cinema, said that after vastly improving the docu nominating process that culled the finalists, the Academy could improve the final voting process to widen the ballot pool. “It’s time to examine the voting process,” she said, suggesting the Academy require more screenings or keep cassettes on file for members who want to view them and vote.

For his part, Cohn said the notion he’s somehow shielded his film from potential voters is “nonsense.” He said he believes in the Academy’s system and followed it to the letter, showing his film twice in New York and L.A., once in S.F. and paying the costs to hold a screening in Boston at the request of Academy members. He’ll do it again if asked.

While Artisan and Winstar offered to cover the costs of making cassettes for last-minute voters, Cohn said that is not an option for a film that hasn’t been signed for distribution. He believes the vote will be a fair one.

That sentiment is echoed by Bruce Davis, exec director of the AMPAS. “This comes up every year, but when you push people to analyze how the process can be manipulated, it dissolves in paranoia,” he said, arguing that as many as 400 will vote for the trophy and that only 17 voters requested ballots after viewing some of the candidates on cassette. “I understand the insecurities out of which these concerns arise, but the fact is it’s hard to give them credibility once you fully understand this is a system where Pricewaterhouse checks each member in and out of screenings. We encourage voters to see these films in quality theaters. It’s all designed to level the playing field. This is not something that needs to be fixed.”

TUBE STINTS: “Ladies Man” director Reginald Hudlin has helmed an episode of Steven Bochco’s CBS drama “City of Angels,” skedded to air March 28 with a guest appearance by Ossie Davis. Hudlin’s repped by Endeavor … After guesting in three high-rated episodes of NBC’s “Providence,” former “Dallas” star Victoria Principal has just guested on an episode of ABC’s “The Practice.” At the same time, she’s signed with Random House to write a handbook to help women age gracefully.

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