U saddles up ‘Seabiscuit’

Universal-based producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have come on board to produce “Seabiscuit” at Universal for director Gary Ross.

One of the top book projects around town, pic has been inching into production since Ross aborted preparations for an untitled Jim Carrey/Nicole Kidman romance for U and Jersey Films earlier this year.

That romance will now follow “Seabiscuit,” which Ross is adapting from Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling story of the famous mid-century racehorse. “Seabiscuit” will go into production in the fall at various U.S. locations including California’s Santa Anita racetrack.

A start date for a major studio production of Hillenbrand’s book is the latest evidence of a book-friendly mood swing in Hollywood.

Development slates since January have been jammed with book deals. Lit-minded producer Scott Rudin has taken esteemed projects like “Lemony Snicket” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” and a new Michael Chabon novel, under his wing.

And, perhaps most significant, the embattled production of “Cold Mountain,” the prize-winning Civil War epic adapted by Anthony Minghella, finally has a start date in July.

After weeks of flirting with the pic, Tom Cruise has opted not to take the lead role of a wounded Confederate soldier trying reunite with the woman he left behind.

That hasn’t derailed production, however.

Casting and physical production of “Cold Mountain” are in full swing. Minghella, Mirage Enterprises partner Sydney Pollack and fellow production outfits Miramax Films, MGM and Bonafide have been scouting locations in the American South and Europe.

“Seabiscuit” and “Cold Mountain” are both high-stakes projects that spent years in the development mill before getting this far. Both were massive bestsellers that wend their way to the screen amid great expectations and media coverage.

“Seabiscuit,” acquired by U in a much-publicized bidding war, is the story of three men who banded together around the knock-kneed racehorse who became a cultural icon for Depression-era America.

“Laura has written an amazing piece of popular history,” said Ross, who will produce with Kennedy/Marshall and his former partner, Jane Sindell. “I hope that I can do it justice.”

DISNEY KIDS PUBLISHING TOPPER Deborah Dugan, who has overseen a transition at the company from a licensing-driven to a content-driven publishing plan, has been promoted to the newly created position of president, Disney Publishing Worldwide.

The conglom’s kids books division, Disney Publishing Worldwide is the planet’s biggest kids publisher, reaching more than 100 million readers monthly with thousands of children’s books and 274 children’s magazines

A division of Disney Consumer Products, it features companies like Disney Press, Hyperion Books for Children (home to authors like Maurice Sendak, Toni Morrison and recent Caldecott award-winner Bryan Collier) and consumer magazines Discover, Disney Magazine and FamilyFun.

Among other projects at Disney, Dugan spearheaded the acquisition of several key properties including “Baby Einstein,” and developed “tween” properties, such as international W.I.T.C.H. magazine, and Volo, a new paperback series in the U.S.

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