Disney gives ‘Rookie’ ace ‘Alamo’ reins

As soon as he puts his John Lee Hancock on a contract, the director of “The Rookie” and writer of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “A Perfect World” will take the reins of “The Alamo,” Disney’s historical epic.

Hancock’s emergence follows notification by Ron Howard to studio brass that he wouldn’t direct, though he and Imagine partner Brian Grazer would continue as producers. It is likely that Russell Crowe will also exit the role of Sam Houston, since his motive was to re-team with his “A Beautiful Mind” director.

Hancock’s “The Rookie” grossed four times its $20 million cost. Hancock, who received a six-figure salary for his directing debut on that hit, will be aiming to crack the seven-figure mark, a dramatic savings from Howard’s A-list salary. The studio had an option on Hancock’s next film, and has been offering him everything in its arsenal. Now, he’s got the biggest film the studio has.

“The Alamo” standoff was squarely about money and about Michael Eisner’s clear concern about making movie decisions that would anger shareholders already down on Disney’s performance. Would they stand for a $125 million pricetag when $30 million of that against 25% of the gross was going toward Howard, Grazer and Crowe, marking the highest gross level the studio has ever given?

No one at the studio would comment for the record, but the poor performance of media companies in general added to the pressures on studio chairman Dick Cook and Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson, who probably would have gotten Eisner to sign off on the Ron Howard-helmed version of “The Alamo” this time last year. Disney, which only passed the $100 million mark for a live-action film on “Pearl Harbor,” is juggling “Alamo” and the comparably priced “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced adaptation of the Disney theme park ride. While there is no comparison in the prestige and Oscar potential columns, “Pirates” has several advantages: less gross given away to above-the-liners, merchandising, video sell-through and sequel potential, the latter of which is not a possibility for “The Alamo.”

Once Hancock completes his deal, Disney will try to pare the budget to around $75 million. While there are sure to be doubters who’ll say the loss of Howard and Crowe shows Disney’s future is in films like “The Country Bears,” the studio and Hancock will see it differently. While the writer in Hancock might prompt a polish, he’s got a sharp script about a rich historical subject that Oscar-winning “Traffic” scribe Stephen Gaghan spent four weeks reworking under the direction of Howard and Grazer. A second time helmer-could do worse.

NEW LINE PONDERS DUMBERER IDEAS: Fresh from breaking the bank with “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” New Line is moving quickly toward the starting line and a summer 2003 release of “Dumb and Dumberer,” a line extension of one of its first $100 million grossers. Despite the whopping successes of “Lord of the Rings” and “Powers,” the new New Line is about reining in costs, and the studio isn’t going back to Jim Carrey or directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly. They’ve just hired Troy Miller to direct a prequel that will depict loveable dullard siblings Harry and Lloyd during their formative high school years, when the special ed students become determined to crack “the big show,” otherwise known as mainstream high school.

Miller is a vet TV producer and director who just helmed for New Line, “Run Ronnie Run.” That pic, an extension of HBO’s “Mr. Show,” might not even get a full-blown release, or at least not this year. But Miller’s strong staging of set pieces in that film, along with his “Dumb” take got him this job. He’ll work from a script originated by Robert Brenner, brother of New Line exec Richard Brenner. Standup comic Brian Hartt has done a polish, and another vet comedy scribe will likely be brought in before the pic is cast and put into production by late fall.

“The first movie has become a classic that was discovered by a new generation of fans who were too young when it came out but have caught it on video and DVD,” production president Toby Emmerich said. “We hope to take the sensibility of those characters and mix it with the high school age genre …The script is very funny, but the first one had heart and made you care about Harry and Lloyd. The challenge here is to make a film where you’d care about the younger versions of them the way you did in the original.”

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