Studio searches for Pitt replacement

Universal Pictures spent the weekend trying to convince Russell Crowe, its “American Gangster” topliner, to replace Brad Pitt as the star of “State of Play.”

The result of that courtship will be known early this week and will determine how ugly things get between the studio and Pitt after he exited the picture over disagreements about the shooting script.

Pitt’s exit on Thanksgiving eve not only put the picture in a state of flux, it also left a studio and star with differing opinions on which one caused the exit. And it left Hollywood questioning how valid pay-or-play deals are in a strike climate where studios are venturing into production starts on scripts that can’t get a rewrite if they need one.

U claimed Pitt left a pay-or-play commitment and left open the option of suing him; Pitt’s camp claimed he was essentially forced out of a movie he’s been eager to topline for almost two years just because the studio wouldn’t wait for a strike resolution and a rewrite to bring the script back to a place that made him comfortable.

While the writers strike has so far had its greatest impact on network series, it has wreaked havoc over the past two weeks on films including “Angels & Demons,” “Shantaram” and “Pinkville,” which were postponed. “State of Play” is now struggling to avoid that fate.

Weeks ago, “State of Play” headed toward its Nov. 15 start date with a sparkling cast. Now, if Crowe doesn’t fit in the pic before playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Ridley Scott-directed U drama “Nottingham,” which begins shooting in March, “State of Play” will be in jeopardy.

Actors like Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks are available after their pictures (“Shantaram” and “Angels & Demons,” respectively) were postponed, but Universal is in a hurry to keep “Play” cast members Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman in place. Mirren needs to begin production soon so she can finish in time to start “Love Ranch” early next year with husband-director Taylor Hackford and co-star Joe Pesci.

The role Pitt exited and Crowe is considering is a politico-turned-journalist who spearheads his newspaper’s investigation into a killing that leads to a fast-rising pol (Norton). The journalist faces two conflicts: He once ran campaigns for the pol and was his confidant, and the journo develops a romance with the pol’s estranged wife (Wright Penn).

If the studio chooses to sue Pitt, it would test the validity of a pay-or-play deal. Universal believed that Pitt signed one, while Pitt’s reps believed he didn’t, because he never approved a shooting script that got rewritten numerous times and never to his satisfaction.

Pitt was dedicated to “State of Play,” having been attached for 16 months to a project that has been a high U priority since the studio, producers Andrew Hauptman and Working Title partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner landed the project after a hot bidding war. Pitt had a say in selecting the director and the cast.

Unfortunately, Pitt and the studio never quite meshed on the script, said several sources. He sparked to Matthew Michael Carnahan’s original adaptation of the Paul Abbott-created British miniseries but apparently liked it more than the studio. While the actor made several movies in quick succession, Universal got rewrites by the likes of Peter Morgan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray. Pitt’s vision departed from that of the studio somewhere along that rewrite trail.

Pitt wanted to wait for a strike resolution to get a rewrite that brought the film closer to Carnahan’s original. Studio, eager to keep its late 2008 release date, told Pitt it liked the script as is and encouraged him to honor his commitment. The start date was postponed, while helmer Kevin Macdonald and the studio spent several days trying to make Pitt OK with the script they had since rewrites weren’t an option.

U announced his departure in a statement released last Wednesday: “Brad Pitt has left the Universal Pictures production of ‘State of Play.’ We remain committed to this project and to the filmmakers, cast members, crew and others who are also involved in making the movie. We reserve all rights in this matter.”

The studio has sued stars before. It filed a breach-of-contract suit against Mike Myers when he ankled “Dieter” because he was unhappy with the script. A settlement was reached.

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