James Vanderbilt to pen upcoming sequels

As Sony Pictures Entertainment preps a fourth installment of “Spider-Man” to begin production early next year, the studio has quietly engaged screenwriter James Vanderbilt to pen “Spider-Man 5″ and “Spider-Man 6.”

Vanderbilt was the first writer on “Spider-Man 4.” Director Sam Raimi brought on “Rabbit Hole” playwright David Lindsay-Abaire to rewrite him, and Gary Ross is now rewriting that script. The studio is enthusiastic about where it stands as the picture begins prepping for an early 2010 production start for a May 2011 release.

Raimi didn’t embrace all of Vanderbilt’s ideas, but execs at Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios have. Vanderbilt has been hired to pen the fifth and sixth movies, which have an interconnected storyline. That’s what was originally discussed when Vanderbilt signed on to write “Spider-Man 4,” but the idea of shooting a fourth and fifth film back to back with the original cast was scrapped.

Sources said it was unclear whether Raimi, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst will be back. If they aren’t, Vanderbilt’s script would be the blueprint for a franchise reboot. After committing to his fourth “Spider-Man” film, Raimi signed on to direct a new franchise based on the massively multiplayer role-playing online computer game “World of Warcraft” for Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. Maguire and Dunst were locked into the first three pictures and made a new deal for “Spider-Man 4.” It’s unclear how long they want to continue with the series.

Then again, Raimi was initially doubtful for “Spider-Man 4″ because he expected to direct “The Hobbit,” but returned after Guillermo del Toro got the job.

Why is Vanderbilt writing when so many variables are undecided?

The most important thing is for Sony to prime the “Spider-Man” pump more frequently. The lapse between films has grown with each blockbuster. The second film came only two years after the first, but it took three years for a third installment, and four years will have passed when “Spider-Man 4″ opens in summer 2011.

Sony Pictures toppers Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton may well have a new franchise following last weekend’s strong opening of “District 9.” And after “Angels and Demons” grossed some $500 million worldwide, they will certainly move forward and extend the “Da Vinci Code” franchise with an adaptation of Dan Brown’s fall publishing release, “The Lost Symbol.” But “Spider-Man” remains the studio’s most important film franchise, and Sony doesn’t want to wait half a decade for the next outing.

While the “Spider-Man” movie business is booming, Sony has widenedits footprint on the franchise and become one of the investors in the Broadway musical version of the webslinger; the “Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark” tuner recently experienced a funding hiccup on the way to a planned March premiere.

Although there’s been speculation that the show, which will cost upward of $35 million to produce, may not get off the ground, the project is too important to the “Spider-Man” partners to be tabled, sources said. The musical has “The Lion King” director Julie Taymor and songs by U2’s Bono and the Edge.

Vanderbilt’s most recent script credits are the Sylvain White-directed “The Losers” for Warner Bros. and David Fincher’s “Zodiac.”

He’s repped by WME and Fuse Entertainment.

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