Film, slated for '08, is the second of its kind

Antoine Fuqua will direct “Escobar,” a biopic about the notorious Colombian cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar that aspires to be the first of two rival pics on the subject to make it into production.

Oliver Stone will produce with J2 Pictures partners Justin Berfield and Jason Felts, and James Reach.

Fuqua, Stone and J2 are up against “Killing Pablo,” an adaptation of the Mark Bowden book about the hunt for Escobar that Joe Carnahan will direct. Bob Yari is financing that project, with Javier Bardem and Christian Bale attached to star.

Carnahan isn’t immediately available, however, because he’s committed to directing George Clooney in “White Jazz,” a high-profile adaptation of the James Ellroy book.

“Escobar” is based on “Mi Hermano Pablo,” a book written by Roberto Escobar Gaviria, who served as his brother’s accountant and confidant and whose company, STL Holdings, committed the life and literary rights of the Escobar family.

David McKenna, whose credits include “Blow” and “American History X,” is working on a rewrite under the supervision of Stone and Fuqua.

“Escobar” has its financing in place, according to J2 partners Berfield and Felts. Production is slated to begin the in first quarter of 2008 in Colombia and Puerto Rico, and Jere Hausfater will handle international sales through Essential Entertainment. Pic will be introduced at the American Film Market.

Stone, who has covered the drug-smuggling terrain as a screenwriter on “Midnight Express” and “Scarface,” also knows a thing or two about winning a biopic race: His movie on Alexander the Great got into production first, halting a rival film on the Macedonian conqueror that Baz Luhrmann was to direct and Leonardo DiCaprio was to topline.

Carnahan has worked for five years on “Killing Pablo.” Awareness of the subject was recently heightened by “Medellin,” a fictional film that was part of an ongoing storyline in the HBO series “Entourage.”

While Carnahan and Yari downplayed a rival’s emergence in announcing that their Escobar film was on firm footing, the “Escobar” producers said theirs is an honest depiction of Escobar’s rise to become one of the world’s richest men by leading the Medellin drug cartel and inflicting terror upon Colombia.

“Joe Carnahan’s notion of us poaching his territory and rushing for a pre-strike start is false. We’ve been working with Robert and a half-dozen consultants for a year and a half to tell an accurate story,” said Berfield, the former “Malcolm in the Middle” star who’s also mobilizing a feature about Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.

Berfield said that while Escobar’s brother is a consultant with a first-hand perspective on how his brother built a drug empire, the sibling doesn’t have script approval.

“My brother will be portrayed as a ruthless head of the Medellin cartel,” Escobar Gaviria said in a statement. “This is just 10% of the story. The other 90% is the story others trying to portray him simply don’t have.”

Stone said: “This is a great project about a fascinating man who took on the system. I think I have to thank ‘Scarface,’ and maybe even Ari Gold.”

“Escobar was Robin Hood, a saint to some, and the devil to others,” Fuqua told Daily Variety. “He’s a fascinating study in contrasts… He came from the wrong side of the tracks with nothing, but when he died was worth $3 billion… He was one of the most successful criminals we’ve ever seen, and that’s why I find him such a compelling subject for a movie.”

Biopics often seem to happen in stereo, and there’s a lot of pressure not be runner-up. That lesson was underscored by the fate of two films about Truman Capote’s quest to write “In Cold Blood.”

The Bennett Miller-directed “Capote,” which came out first, drew acclaim and an Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Douglas McGrath-directed “Infamous” came second and fizzled. A similar struggle is being waged by rival movies about Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco politician who was murdered along with S.F. Mayor George Moscone by Dan White, who like Milk was a city supervisor.

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron finally turned a corner on a 15-year quest to adapt “The Mayor of Castro Street” with a reteam of “The Usual Suspects” director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie for Warner Independent Pictures, but that duo is busy making the Tom Cruise starrer “Valkyrie.” Gus Van Sant, once attached to “Castro Street,” is mobilizing his own Milk project for an early 2008 start. Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen are producing, funding comes from Michael London’s Groundswell, and Sean Penn has shown an interest in toplining the film.

Fuqua last directed the Mark Wahlberg starrer “Shooter.”

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