Exec changes send more pics to back burner

More than one big fish got away this year.

In fact, 2009 might best be remembered as the year of the movies that never were. Studios and financiers pulled the plug on myriad high-profile pics, from big-budget tentpoles like Disney’s “Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” to indie sex-change drama “The Danish Girl,” which was packaged as a Nicole Kidman-Gwyneth Paltrow-starring vehicle.

Disney — which endured a September regime change — was particularly inclined to shelve previously fast-tracked projects. A month after nixing “Nemo,” new chief Rich Ross put the brakes on another film that had been shepherded by former topper Dick Cook’s regime: the romantic comedy “Wedding Banned.” The studio put the romantic comedy — which was to have starred Robin Williams, Anna Faris and Diane Keaton — in turnaround. Days later, Ross put “Wild Hogs 2: Bachelor Ride” on the scrap heap.

The sequel to the 2007 hit was set to begin lensing in the summer, with cast members John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy returning as a posse of biker friends in midlife crisis. “Nemo,” “Wedding Banned” and “Wild Hogs 2″ were all slotted for Disney’s 2011 slate.

“Nemo’s” demise in particular sent shock waves throughout the industry, given that the studio had already spent millions on the film. Will Smith had been targeted as the lead.

“This one had people scratching their heads,” says a high-profile dealmaker. “This was a go movie. You don’t go into preproduction on a movie like this and say, ‘We won’t make it if we can’t make a deal with Will Smith.’ You cast someone else.”

While Disney’s overhaul likely reflects the newly installed Ross’ desire to put his own stamp on the studio’s slate, even a more stable regime like Sony opted to put its Brad Pitt starrer “Moneyball” on the disabled list just days before cameras were set to roll.

A source close to the project says the studio’s decision came down to the wire because the screenplay — submitted at the 11th hour — was deemed too experimental and not commercial enough. Couple that with the fact that baseball has limited appeal internationally, and the studio was forced to reassess.

When you have a star and director (Steven Soderbergh) ready to go, it’s not easy to say no,” the insider explains. “But this film doesn’t have a wide audience. This was ultimately a passion project for Brad and Steven that was being made for $50 million-$60 million. The studio couldn’t take that risk.”

Unlike “Captain Nemo,” Sony will only have to write down a few hundred thousand on the stalled project, which is now being retooled with “Capote” director Bennett Miller at the helm. Pitt is still attached.

Across town at Paramount, Kenny Ortega ankled as director of “Footloose” over creative and budget differences less than five months before the start of production, leaving the fate of the dance-themed remake in jeopardy. The studio is still scrambling to fill the void before a scheduled March start, when star Chace Crawford begins his “Gossip Girl” hiatus.

Likewise, 20th Century Fox’s $90 million comedy “Neighborhood Watch” fell apart after star Will Ferrell and director David Dobkin exited the project in August.

Months before its own regime change, Universal cleared its decks by putting dozens of pics in turnaround — far more than during a typical year, according to a studio insider. Among the projects thrown overboard was a Brett Ratner-helmed Brian Grazer-produced Hugh Hefner biopic. Though the studio says there was nothing unusual about this year’s turnaround practices, even the most jaded industry-watchers were stunned by the sheer volume.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. was supposed to kick off 2009 by shooting the Todd Phillips-directed comedy “Man-Witch,” with Jack Black toplining. Black dropped out six months before the film’s tentative start date. The pic’s cancellation paved the way for Phillips to turn his attentions to “The Hangover” — perhaps the most profitable 2009 film that almost didn’t happen.

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