'Timeline,' 'Borders' can't make deadlines

NEW YORK — Call it Death Race 2001.

For every big-ticket, star-driven pic that rolls prior to the potential strikes, two more big-money projects are crashing and burning.

In this frenzied production season, the usual Hollywood rules don’t apply.

Studio execs don’t have the time to navigate production hurdles and scheduling conflicts. Facing impossibly compressed timetables, producing a major feature has become a madhouse.

But it’s also a house of cards, susceptible to collapse if a single element doesn’t fall into place.

Under normal circumstances, if a script isn’t camera-ready, it can often be rewritten in short order; if an A-list actor falls out of a project, there are often half a dozen others available to replace him. Discussions of financing and budgets aren’t conducted with a gun at one’s head.

But when Tim Allen, fearing script problems, decided not to don his Santa suit for Disney’s “Santa Clause,” the project has to be put on ice indefinitely.

When Nicole Kidman recently sustained a knee injury two weeks into the shooting of Columbia’s “The Panic Room,” execs found a panic-inducing dearth of available top talent to step in.

When Oliver Stone quibbles over a budget on “Beyond Borders” for Mandalay Entertainment, there’s no time left to haggle, so Mandalay has no time to find a new helmer.

When financing didn’t quickly fall into place for “Crouching Tiger” helmer Ang Lee’s next pic, his producers abruptly called off the talks.

“There was one bottom line,” says Good Machine co-chair and Lee collaborator James Schamus. “We were never going to put Ang into a situation in which he’d have to compromise the end result to meet an arbitrary deadline.”

Mandalay’s Stone pic, “Beyond Borders,” which was set to start lensing in the spring, fell apart strictly over budget issues that, on the surface, have little to do with the stalled WGA/SAG talks.

But the potential of a strike laid immense pressure on Mandalay and on Stone to resolve their differences quickly. Though figures were not disclosed, one insider said that the issues could have been handled had there been more time.

“He would have come down. We would have gone up. There was just no time,” says one insider.

Other pics that may not make a pre-strike start date are Richard Donner’s “Timeline” at Paramount; Warner Bros.’ next David O. Russell pic; “Basic Instinct 2″ and “Terminator 3″; and “50 First Kisses,” the next pic by “Meet the Parents” helmer Jay Roach.

Still more problematic for producers is the ever narrowing window of opportunity to land top talent for pics they’re frantically hoping to stuff together in coming weeks.

Producers are constantly being updated about what talent is being freed as other projects fall apart. But their dilemmas are proving a boon for B-list actors, who are suddenly in demand.

Studios are forced to rely on B-list actors to plug casting holes, while paying them A-list salaries rather than endure overlong contract negotiations.

“In general,” says one production exec, “scheduling movies to accommodate the availability of actors can be like doing a Rubic’s Cube. With the hard stop date deadline, this Rubic’s Cube, instead of being three-by-three is six-by-six.”

Even those producers who beat the odds and rush actors in front of cameras may find that the quality of their efforts is dubious. The lack of development as these pics are hastily shoved together means they’re likely to have more holes.

On the other hand, overdevelopment is less likely to be a problem. Studios will be forced to shoot scripts as writers conceived them, allowing the original ideas to shine through more brightly.

Either way, many projects meant to be flying this spring clearly won’t make it. Come summer, if Hollywood is a ghost town and stars and execs are more apt to be spotted playing pick-up basketball than on a set, they’ll have plenty of time to reflect on this madcap season and wonder: What went wrong?

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