MGM crowns Latifah its ‘Beauty’ queen

Producer-thesp to get big pay raise

After lathering up a healthy $75 million at the box office with last fall’s “Barbershop,” MGM now wants to open a new comedy franchise right next door with Queen Latifah as proprietor, producer and star of “Beauty Shop.”

Sources say her salary will be as royal as her name, nearing the eight-figure mark against a cut of the gross. It’s a quantum leap from the $1 million Latifah was paid for starring alongside Steve Martin in “Bringing Down the House.” But between her supporting actress Oscar nom for “Chicago” and the box office perf of “House,” Hollywood seems ready to ride her ascending star.

The Lion would launch the new franchise with a Latifah cameo in the “Barbershop” sequel expected next winter, with her shop located next door to Ice Cube’s convivial but financially challenged inner-city Chicago tonsorial parlor. That would set up her starring role in the spinoff, which would be developed concurrently with “Barbershop 2.”

Her cameo’s main purpose is to establish the new character for the spinoff, but it puts her on the same screen as Ice Cube, another rapper-turned-actor/producer whose career arc she is mirroring as she crosses over from small urban projects such as “Set It Off” to pics with appeal to mainstream auds.

“Beauty Shop” would also be produced by Latifah and her Flavor Unit Films partner Shakim Compere; they’re talking with Elizabeth Hunter (“The Fighting Temptations”) to script. Latifah also is starting a record label and, as part of her deal, that new label would oversee music for “Beauty Shop.”

Deal came about after a meeting with MGM prexy Michael Nathanson right after the “Chicago” opening. MGM wanted to spin off “Barbershop,” one of its biggest hits last year, and the studio targeted Latifah soon after. “Barbershop” cost the studio $12 million to make, plus another $1 million for rights to the wide-ranging collection of rap, soul and R&B music it used.

“We are excited to be going into business with Queen Latifah,” said Nathanson. “Her acting, producing and musical talents are going to make invaluable contributions to MGM’s new franchise.”

Latifah’s WMA reps have received numerous offers for their suddenly hot client. Disney decided the Michael Elliot pitch “Just Wright” was just right for Latifah to produce and star in as a physical therapist who falls for the hoops star who hires her to help him heal in a hurry. Latifah and Compere will produce that romantic comedy with Deborah Chase.

Other possible deals include a Luc Besson-produced Fox remake of French action comedy hit “Taxi.” Latifah would play a cabbie whose driving skills are put to the test by a cop who needs transportation to prevent a heist in Manhattan. Deal for that pic isn’t done, though, as Fox execs face sticker shock from Latifah’s rapidly escalating price. More interesting is that “Taxi” and several other offered parts originally were scripted for men but have been revamped to try to snare her involvement.

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