Confessions from the crypt

Dead film society expands membership

HOLLYWOOD – Some projects are launched with a lot of money, a lot of fanfare and a lot of anticipation. And the rest is silence.

In 1979, United Artists paid $2.5 million for Gay Talese’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” It was never made.

But there’s hope for long-in-development projects: Box office champ “Cast Away” took seven years to come together. “Schindler’s List” took more than 10.

Mel Gibson’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Michael Crichton’s “Airframe,” Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan in a remake of “The Women,” and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a lovable Nazi in “With Wings as Eagles”: They’re just a handful of film projects that kicked off with moola, hoopla and hope, only to become MIA years later.

Some proposed film projects are perennials. Every year, there is talk of new versions of “What Makes Sammy Run” and “A Face in the Crowd” as well as musicals like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables.” Sequels to “Indiana Jones,” “Basic Instinct” and “The Terminator” have been “imminent” for years.

Others create buzz, followed by absolute quiet. Paramount paid $1 million in 1990 for the romantic spec script “The Cheese Stands Alone,” but then cut “The Cheese.”

There are a number of reasons why projects stall: The executive regime switches, the script doesn’t gel, the funding falls apart, or the director/star/producer cools on the idea and moves on to something else.

But just because they’re on ice doesn’t mean that they’ll never thaw. While some are dead in the water, others are still hopeful of a greenlight. Some, like Miramax’s “Chicago,” is moving forward.

Here’s a rundown of some anticipated works that haven’t yet seen the light of day.

“Airframe” — In October 1996, Disney paid $8 million-$10 million for Crichton’s novel about a plane crash, two months before Knopf published it. That payday included an estimated $2 million producing fee for Crichton. A month later, director John McTiernan and writer William Wisher were put on the project for Touchstone.

In November 1999, “Airframe” was still in development. Since then, the rights reverted to Crichton, who offered to return the money.

“Fahrenheit 451” — In July 1994, Mel Gibson and Warner Bros. huddled over a remake. Over the years, it went through scripts by novelist Ray Bradbury, Tony Puryear and Terry Hayes. By 1997, Gibson had switched plans to star, instead planning to direct it; two years later, he postponed it, because his hoped-for star, Brad Pitt, was unavailable. In the meantime, Gibson flirted with starring in “The Saint” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” directing “The Palio” and developing Christopher Buckley’s “Thank You for Not Smoking.”

Gibson said he couldn’t find a “451” script that worked. Adding to his reluctance: the realization that, in the age of computers, the crucial plot element — burning books in a futuristic society to permanently erase their existence — might no longer play.

“Rent”/”Chicago” — There was a fierce bidding war in August 1996 for Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” with Miramax and Tribeca reportedly paying $2.5 million against $5 million for the Broadway tuner. Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese were to produce. However, to protect the legit version, Miramax was asked to not release the film version until 1999.

As of December 1998, no money had exchanged hands; Writers & Artists agent Bill Craver said at the time it was “a complicated delay, but there hasn’t been a real urgency because of the holdback of when the film could reach theaters.”

Miramax had to exercise purchase of the rights by Oct. 29, 2000, which it complied with, in payments north of $2.5 million. Miramax says it has several directors interested, but has agreed to not release the film before Oct. 29, 2001 — to protect international legit productions.

As for “Chicago,” a pic version of the Kander & Ebb musical had been bruited since the 1970s; in the 1990s, Miramax stepped in, with such names as director Nicholas Hytner, scripter Larry Gelbart and stars like Madonna, Goldie Hawn and Nicole Kidman mentioned. The project now seems back on track, with a script expected soon from Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), and Rob Marshall attached to direct.

“The Runaway Jury” — Warner Bros. in August 1996 paid a then-record $8 million for John Grisham’s novel. It was expected to go before the cameras in October 1997, with Joel Schumacher directing Sean Connery, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ed Norton; then Philip Kaufman was to helm for a summer 1998 start for WB/New Regency. In September 1999, Alfonso Cuaron was named as helmer, with the subject changed from a landmark tobacco lawsuit to a trial involving the gun lobby.

“Gangland”/”Male Pattern Baldness” — In April 1993, producer Jon Peters paid Joe Eszterhas up to $1.7 million upfront to pen “Gangland,” the story of John Gotti, for Columbia. In all, Eszterhas’ writing and producing chores were estimated at $2 million-$3.4 million.

In March 1995, he stepped aside to allow another screenwriter to tackle it. He reportedly settled for $2.75 million.

In 1997, Paramount paid $2 million against $4.5 million for Eszterhas’ script “Male Pattern Baldness.” Betty Thomas was to helm, but in June 1999 the director reins shifted to Mark Illsley (“Happy Texas”). It still awaits the casting of a star.

“With Wings as Eagles” — In 1996, Schwarzenegger was reported ready to film Randall Wallace’s script about a Nazi who is ordered to execute GIs but liberates them instead. Wallace and Alan Ladd Jr. would produce for Paramount; Ridley Scott was to direct it, but when the actor’s illness forced a change in schedule, Scott became unavailable.

Par shifted its WWII attention to “Saving Private Ryan.” Four years later, the actor told Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd that he still wanted to make the pic. Sources said a sticking point is a director; Schwarzenegger has given a short list of approved helmers, but none warmed to the project.

Another Schwarzenegger-Scott project long in development: Warner Bros.’ “I Am Legend.”

“The Women” — Twenty years ago, MGM execs ordered a remake of the 1939 bitchy comedy, based on Claire Booth Luce’s play. Since then, the project moved to New Line; in 1994, Diane English (TV’s “Murphy Brown”) pacted to script the film, with Roberts and Ryan to star and co-produce; other thesps like Whitney Houston were interested in joining the all-female cast. Oliver Parker later was named to direct.

One problem could be the script: Luce’s play centers on a bunch of rich women whose lives are unquestioningly dependent upon men. New Line says it’s still in active development, as is the long-gestating “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

“Memoirs of a Geisha” — This is a relative newcomer to the roster. In April 1998, Steven Spielberg committed to “Geisha” as his first film post-“Saving Private Ryan,” to be shared by Columbia and DreamWorks. The following month, DreamWorks withdrew, saying it was too modest a pic to require a co-production arrangement.

In September, newcomer Rika Okamoto was cast in the title role; Julyana Soelistyo was also cast; Ron Bass was paid $1 million to script from Arthur Golden’s bestseller. The following month, the January 1999 start date was delayed until April. Then it was pushed back a year. Then it was skedded to start in April 2000, in Los Angeles.

Sony is expecting a script from Akiva Goldsman soon.

“Dino”: In November 1997, Hanks pacted for “The Green Mile,” but it wasn’t clear what would be next on his slate: “Mile,” “You’ve Got Mail” or the Scorsese-helmed biopic of singer Dean Martin — all for Warner Bros.

Nicholas Pileggi was signed to script, based on the bio by Nick Tosches. In July 1998, Paul Schrader became the scripter of record; he said the dream cast would be John Travolta as Frank Sinatra, Hugh Grant as Peter Lawford, Adam Sandler as Joey Bishop and Jim Carrey as Jerry Lewis. Scorsese admitted he had to put the project on “the back burner” because of the stars’ commitments for the coming year. Scorsese instead shifted his focus to “Gangs of New York.”

(Claude Brodesser, Cathy Dunkley, Charles Lyons and Todd McCarthy contributed to this report.)

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