Helmers the reel deal

Young directors will run own shingle at USA Films

NEW YORK — A major film venture is fast forming under the aegis of some of the most respected young film directors.

“Traffic” director Steven Soderbergh, “Being John Malkovich” helmer Spike Jonze, “Fight Club” helmer David Fincher and “Election” director Alexander Payne are forming a film company. They will direct films and enjoy complete creative control, along with the opportunity to own the titles in five to seven years. “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes has also been invited to join a venture that probably will be linked to USA Films, which would contribute financing, marketing and distribution and get domestic distribution rights.

The concept of forming a company to give creatives control is not unprecedented. It’s the same principle behind the late ’60s formation of a directors’ company at Paramount by then-powerhouse helmers Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin.

In the new venture, each partner has pledged to direct three movies over the first five years, and the venture will only exist for the production and distribution of their films. It’s unclear whether they’ll bring in an executive to run the company, and there are no firm guidelines over issues like ratings, budgets or film length. While each of the participants is known for making eclectic films, none is known for being profligate in terms of budget.

Several other distribution companies are said to be vying for the deal, but sources said USA is in the home stretch. It might seem logical to assume USA’s pole position came because of the job it did on “Traffic,” which won four Oscars, including director for Soderbergh. But the overriding reason isn’t that, said sources. Rather, the partners sparked to USA because it is not a major studio that would look to swallow world rights and exert control over creative content. For USA, the obvious benefit is that it gives Barry Diller’s film company a reliable supply of films by top-notch directors.

The venture is coming together even while some of the directors have non-exclusive deals at other studios. It’s envisioned that some of those relationships can be served by those studios coming aboard for foreign distribution rights.

It is also possible that other directors will be invited as partners in the venture, and at present it seems less than likely that Mendes will be one of them. Part of the appeal for the group is the chance for creative brainstorming sessions with the other partners, and sources said Mendes is concerned that he would not be able to participate.

While “American Beauty” won him the director Oscar on his first film and he’s completed shooting the Tom Hanks-starrer “The Road to Perdition,” he still spends a majority of his time in London, running his Donmar Warehouse legit company. That remains his first priority and Mendes would only take part if he can honor his commitment to the theater company, for which he’ll direct another play next fall. Indeed, it will be a challenge for the partners to continue outside obligations as they devote themselves to a venture that sounds like a dream deal for a director.

PRIMING THE LAUGHTER PUMP: Jay Mohr was the first standup to take the stage in D.C. after the terror attack into the Pentagon, and now he’s returning to Gotham and will donate his paycheck from this Sunday’s Beacon Theater performance to a local rescue company decimated by the World Trade Center disaster. Mohr initially planned to scrap all the dates but ended up playing D.C. two weeks after the tragedy and found it to be mutually cathartic. “When I called to cancel D.C., I was told they’d sold out and that they wanted to add two more shows,” Mohr said. “I figured, if they still want to come, who am I not to show up? I found that those crowds were ready to laugh.” Mohr will donate this Sunday’s paycheck, about $50,000, to Rescue Company Number One. “They’re my neighbors, I walked by there every day and they lost 11 guys,” Mohr said. “I don’t care if they buy beer, ladders, or go on vacation with it, I just have to give them the whole check.” Tickets are available through Jaymohrlive.com.

ANOTHER TRAGEDY CONTENT DILEMMA: Dan Paulson, a producer of true stories who’s up for three Emmys for the CBS miniseries “Haven,” has a fact-based followup that has proved too timely to go forward with. Paulson had been working the past five months on a telepic about Osama bin Laden, the reputed mastermind behind the WTC and Pentagon terror strikes, which occurred as he and technical adviser Vincent Cannistraro were setting meetings with networks. Cannistraro, the former chief of operations and analysis of the CIA’s counterterrorism center who now consults for ABC News, has become a much-sought expert since the bombings, since he knows bin Laden as well as anyone, and once escorted ABC newsman John Miller to Afghanistan for a rare interview with the terrorist kingpin. Under Cannistraro’s guidance Paulson and producing partners Beaux Carson and Dama Chasle put together files full of background on the shadowy Muslim hardliner. “The idea was to do a film about the making of a terrorist and what makes him tick, juxtaposed with the way the intelligence community works, how they seek these people out, and often work at cross purposes,” said Paulson. “(The pic) was to look at terrorism the way ‘Traffic’ looked at drugs.” Paulson’s heard disconcerting rumors that some producers are shopping rights signed with families of WTC victims, but feels that proceeding with any such projects is inappropriate. “I wouldn’t touch anything like that, and am pulling this project for the time being,” he said. “I feel that for patriotic reasons, nobody should be pointing fingers, we should all stand together. At some point, a movie like this should be made, but not now.”

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