Chernin unveils Fox slate

Eight months after being named chairman of 20th Century Fox, Peter Chernin is ready to lift the veil on a slate of films that confirmswhat many in Hollywood already believed: The studio is stepping up production, but concentrating its slate on pickups and what appear to be more modestly priced films.

Even as speculation about Chernin’s plans has been increasing, the amiable and reserved exec has been filling out former topper Joe Roth’s leftover slate with a number of pickups and a slate of “material-driven” films that come from a stable of young and potentially rising stars.

He has greenlighted two big-budget pix for summer 1994. John Hughes’ “Baby’s Day Out” comes out of a six-picture deal with Hughes that was initiated by Roth. And the Jim Cameron action/comedy “True Lies” comes as part of a nine-picture deal that Fox set up with Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment while Roth was chairman.

While Chernin refuses to discuss budgets, Hollywood insiders believe Fox Inc.’s fiscally conservative chairman Rupert Murdoch tapped Chernin because he trusts him to not go budget-wild. Sources say that when Murdoch sits down with his executives, film plans are often the last item on his agenda.

“I think he (Chernin) is going very cautiously right now,” noted one studio exec. “They obviously aren’t making any big movies, but the little movies they’re making could be big at some point.”

Chernin is the first to confirm Hollywood’s suspicions that Murdoch is “a little more involved” in the television end of Fox –“only because he knows more about television,” Chernin said.

Some insiders question whether that will have any negative financial effect on Fox’s film product, but Chernin believes the studio is willing to put out the money to get big talent.

Youth trend

So far, the deals have centered mostly on young writers and producers, yet Chernin said the deal-making is ongoing. He noted that they are currently in negotiations with two directors.

“We just made a deal with David Mickey Evans, who is an extremely talented young director,” he said.

Chernin says Roth left the studio well set up with a broad range of films — including the blockbusters — that will carry Fox pretty much through Christmas and beyond.

“Joe (Roth) and Roger (Birnbaum) did a broad, eclectic slate of films,” Chernin said, “and we are going to try and continue that reputation.”

Among the pix that were greenlighted by Roth are the upcoming “Rookie of the Year,””Robin Hood: Men in Tights,””The Good Son,””Rising Sun,””Beverly Hillbillies” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

As for Murdoch’s input into the film side of Fox, Chernin said the businessman rarely reads scripts or even goes to dailies.

“Rupert is a man who gives his executives responsibility and then holds them accountable,” Chernin said. “I believe in that, too. I don’t think anyone would accuse him of micro-managing.”

Since Chernin headed Fox Broadcasting for nearly four years prior to taking over the film unit, it’s not surprising that his new slate employs a lot of TV faces. Yet he bristles at the suggestion that he relies heavily on his TV roots.

“I’m happy to take people who are from television, but I don’t believe this slate reflects that,” he said.

Up first: ‘Airheads’

The first film that will go before the cameras will be “Airheads,” a rock ‘n’ roll comedy by first-time writer Rich Wilkes about three musicians who take a radio station hostage to get their song demo on the air.

With principal photography to begin June 21, the Island World film will star Brendan Fraser (“Encino Man”), Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler (“Saturday Night Live”). It will be directed by Michael Lehmann (“Heathers”). Robert Simmonds and Mark Berg are producing.

Described as a comedic “Dog Day Afternoon,””Airheads” will be released with an original album in tow. And Chernin has already tapped Wilkes to write a second comedy script for the studio.

In addition, Chernin and Tom Jacobson, Fox’s worldwide production prexy, are looking to work with director Lehmann again, calling him the “cream of the young comedy talent.”

Scheduled to roll in July for a winter/spring ’94 release is the female western pickup “Bad Girls,” coming in under the guidance of indie producers Al Ruddy and Andre Morgan. The pic stars Madeleine Stowe, Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore, Mary Stuart Masterson and Cynda Williams. Tamra Davis (“Guncrazy,””CB 4”) will direct.

Also going before the cameras in July will be the Zack Penn/Adam Leff-written “PCU,” a college comedy that pokes fun at political correctness on university campuses. Paul Schiff is producing and Hart Bochner directs.

The film stars Jeremy Piven (“The Larry Sanders Show”), David Spade (“Saturday Night Live”) and Chris Young.

Meanwhile, Chernin has given Penn and Leff — who came up with the original script of “Last Action Hero”– offices on the Fox lot, has taken an option on their next script, and is discussing two more projects with them.

Another pickup is the comedy/action road story “The Chase,” a Brad Wyman production starring Charlie Sheen as an innocent fugitive who takes a Newport Beach woman hostage and makes a run for the Mexican border. The film is written and will be directed by Adam Rifkin. Principal photography begins Aug. 1 for a winter/spring ’94 release.

In mid-August, the Fox pickup “Yellow Dog,” written and directed by Phil Borsos (“The Grey Fox”), will begin shooting. The film, produced by Kagan Company Radio Telegraph, is a family adventure about a boy and his dog who are shipwrecked on a remote Canadian island. “We’re casting kids and dogs right now, ” Jacobson noted.

“Speed,” an action thriller about a bomb set to go off on a bus when the vehicle slows below 50 mph, is due before the cameras Sept. 1. Mark Gordon is producing and Jan De Bont will direct.

The film stars Keanu Reeves as a cop in a race to save the passengers. The film, written by TV writer Graham Yost, will be released in spring or summer of 1994. Chernin, meanwhile, has already made a deal for Yost’s next script.

Also starting in August is “Baby’s Day Out,” which Hughes wrote and will produce. The film, to be directed by Patrick Johnson, is about three kidnappers who take a 10-month-old baby and then lose him on the streets of Chicago.

“This is really the third act of ‘Home Alone,’ ” Chernin said. “It’s physical comedy for the next generation.”

Cameron’s “True Lies” will also roll in August, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This marks Cameron’s first film under Lightstorm’s multiyear pact with Fox, although the studio’s financial contribution to the film is limited.

Culkin for Christmas

Due out for Christmas 1994 will be the animated “Pagemaster,” which Fox will have been working on for two years at that point. The film will feature Macaulay Culkin in live-action sequences at the beginning and the end, but is primarily animated.

“We really believe in that (animated) field,” Chernin noted. “With our deal with David Kirschner and the Fox Children’s Network, we’ve certainly put up the money to pursue more animated features.”

Fox reportedly signed a three-year, $ 9 million deal with Kirschner and pop star Michael Jackson to do both live-action and animated fantasy films. The company also recently signed a deal with Nickelodeon to do live-action family features.

Further down the road, Chernin and Jacobson have several projects in the later stages of development, including the Jon Lovitz starrer “It Happened in Paradise,” a comedy written and to be directed by George Gallo (“Midnight Run”).

Chernin describes the project as a Frank Capra-esque story of three brothers, two of whom are small-time hoods, who decide to rob a bank in Paradise, Pa., on Christmas eve. Plans are to start production in January 1994 for a fall or Christmas release that year.

More ‘Vinny’

Continuing on track is “My Cousin Vinny 2,” the sequel to Fox’s sleeper hit, with Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei again starring. The sequel is being written by Dale Launer; there is no director attached.

Chernin hopes to put the film into production this fall for release late next year.

Leonard Goldberg recently decided to move his production company from Disney to Fox, and with the move he brings “Waiting for Michael,” to be directed by Jon Avnet.

Negotiations are ongoing for Stephen Rea and Meg Ryan to star. Plans are to put the film into production in February, for a Christmas release later next year.

This fall, Chernin would like to put Island World’s “Seekers” into production. The project, a true story of a New Jersey bounty hunter, was developed for Wesley Snipes, although no director is yet attached.

Also on tap for the near future is a film version of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” which Miller recently adapted for the screen. The film will be produced, directed and will star Kenneth Branagh. Discussions are ongoing for his wife, Oscar winner Emma Thompson, to co-star.