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New Line Cinema has acquired the supernatural action novel “The Black Mariah” for director George Romero and partner Peter Grunwald, who have a first-look deal at New Line.

To be produced under the Romero-Grunwald Prods. banner and based on author Jay Bonansinga’s book, the film — budgeted at close to $ 8 million — will be produced by Grunwald and scripted by Preston Whitmore (“Number Four”) and Bonansinga. Whitmore and Peter Miller will share co-producer credit.

Sources said the project is on an extremely fast development track and that it could possibly go into production as early as this fall.

Although financial details of the deal — hammered out by William Morris Agency VP Jonathan Sheinberg — were not disclosed by New Line officials, sources said the transaction, which involved the book rights in addition to the producing and writing fees for Whitmore, Bonansinga and Miller, was north of $ 250,000 against almost $ 1 million, provided the film gets made.

“The Black Mariah,” which will be published by Warner Books next spring, is the story of a black truck driver and his white female partner who help out a man on the road who claims he’s been cursed — the only way he can stay alive is to keep moving. As they search for a spell to beat the curse, the trio continues to move across the country at any cost.

While New Line and Romero-Grunwald ultimately ended up with the project, they were one of many who had considered acquiring the book. Some of the producers shopping the project earlier this week included Benny Medina and Jeff Pollock at both Fox and MGM with actor Will Smith attached, “Number Four” producers George Jackson and Doug McHenry at Warner Bros., Columbia and TriStar and Joel Stevens at Universal.

Eager for rights

New Line’s production topper Michael De Luca said that with the interest from Romero in the book, the company was eager to step up to the plate and secure the rights.

“What really sold us was being able to attach George as the director,” De Luca said. “We’ve also wanted to work with Preston, so this works out great for us.”

Although De Luca admitted that he didn’t neccessarily see “Mariah” as an obvious franchise property like the company’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, he said, “It’s a great blend of horror and action, which is what we’re always looking for.”

Producer Grunwald said that both he and Romero will be closely supervising the writing of the “Mariah” screenplay.

“To us, movies are about the script and the story,” Grunwald said. “We’re going to be outlining the script with them right away and within the next three weeks they will start writing. They will probably have a draft within six weeks.”

Multi-vehicle movie

Like Whitmore’s “Number Four,” which has been described as “Die Hard” on a bus, “Mariah” is also a vehicle movie, but according to Whitmore, that’s where the similarity ends.

“It’s going to be completely different,” Whitmore said. “It’s perpetual motion. On ‘Number Four,’ the action is pretty much on the bus, where as with this one, it’s going to be in a lot of different vehicles. Also, with the supernatural aspect of the story, it’s almost unlimited in terms of what we can do with the story.”

Reached Friday, first-timer Bonansinga said he’s looking forward to collaborating with the very busy Whitmore.