Yetnikoff trumpets new film

NEW YORK — The prodigal son has returned.

Former CBS Records CEO Walter Yetnikoff, once the most powerful man in the music business who fell from grace three years ago, has finally started his comeback. He’s clean-shaven, clean and sober, and making a clean start — this time in the movie business. He’s got Wesley Snipes committed to play jazz legend Miles Davis in a screen biopic based partly on the 1989 autobiography Davis wrote with Quincy Troupe.

“I’ve closed the rights with the estate for his life story and his music, and have gotten the book itself,” says Yetnikoff, who left CBS Records with much acrimony in September 1990. “It’s a labor of love for me, considering my background. There’s a lot of interest in Miles here, but overseas, he’s like a god.”

Yetnikoff is close to signing a director and screenwriter, neither of whom he would name. But he has assembled his production team on the film: producing partners Preston Holmes and Fernando Sulichin. Holmes is a fixture in the Gotham location business, most recently producing Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and “Crooklyn , N.Y.,” as well as “Posse” for Mario Van Peebles. Sulichin most recently served as associate producer of Lee’s “Malcolm X.”

Having exited CBS Records with a reported payout of $ 25 million, Yetnikoff says there’s no hurry to make a deal with a studio for financing. And he adds he’s not in a hurry to work for someone else again.

“I could make a deal with a studio tomorrow, since I’m coming with the music, the book, and an emotional commitment with one of the best actors in the world,” he says. “But I want to fund the development myself, which should come to a little over $ 1 million. At the moment, I want to put my money where my mouth is. Though I’ve become a sober and decent individual, the asshole aspect still remains, and I want to make the movie the way I want to make the movie. If I make a deal with the majors, I’m just a high-class employee.”

Yetnikoff says his life has changed considerably since the bitter battles with the bottle and, later, Sony brass, led to his exit. A year earlier, Yetnikoff helped broker Sony’s entrance into Hollywood with its $ 3.4 billion purchase of Columbia and the hiring of Peter Guber and Jon Peters to run it.

“I’m not Peck’s bad boy, drunk and crazy anymore,” he says. “Well, I’m still crazy, but I don’t drink or do drugs, and I’ve toned down chasing women. I stopped smoking four months ago, and I’m in shape. I’m benching 260 pounds,” he claims. “At 60 years old, I’m Super Jew.

“I should write everyone I knew back then a thank you letter,” he says. “I’m in an interesting position, because I have the freedom to deal with who I want to deal with. How many people can say that? I’ve resurrected some of my business relationships, but in a general sense, if I don’t like someone, if I feel they’re toxic to my health, I don’t bother.”

Yetnikoff wouldn’t discuss other elements of his long-rumored comeback, but he says talks are ongoing to pool financing to fund other films, perhaps even a record label, all under the auspices of Velvel Musical Industries, Inc., the company he formed after leaving CBS Records. He says there have been several false starts, investments he’s gotten involved in but then got out of. But he feels the Davis project is a perfect starting point.

Though his expertise is music, Yetnikoff has long been fascinated with the movie business. He got an exec producer credit on “Ruthless People” for supplying the music, and he briefly presided over a committee that steered both Columbia Pictures Entertainment and CBS Records.

“I’m talking to money people about revolving funds, to be set up to do some small films. One is ‘Chemical Wedding,’ based on an idea from Bruce Dickinson, the former lead singer of Iron Maiden. I think I have pretty good taste of what people want and don’t want. I used to tell Bill Paley we’re both in the shmatte business, trying to guess if the hemlines are going up or down. I always got along well with talent, so I feel that if I raise my hand, a lot of talent will come out.

“I’ve changed the face of show business, though maybe not totally in a good way. I haven’t done movies, but I’ve been talking about it since 1975. I always wanted to cross that bridge. People have said why go into the movie business, since I’ve never really made a movie?

“I tell them, I never made a record, either,” he says.

‘BUNCH’ REBUFF

The best tip Buzz heard last week had Paramount trying to convince Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, to direct the “Brady Bunch” film. As is often the case with the most far-fetched rumors, it’s true. But Reubens turned down the studio’s inquiry, according to his manager, Michael McLean. With scandals now an everyday Hollywood occurrence, you might have forgotten that Reubens fell from grace when hewas arrested for exposing himself in a porno theater. His critically acclaimed “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” ended, and aside from cameos in the MTV Awards and “Batman Returns” (and a memorable turn in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Reubens has maintained a low profile — waiting, says McLean, for the right opportunity to reemerge. The Bunch wasn’t it. “He’s waiting to find the right project,” McLean explains. “Fortunately, he’s in a position where he doesn’t have to work until he finds the right thing.”

SEASON’S BEATINGS

Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” will break new ground for a Disney holiday release aimed at the kiddie market. Never has a Disney holiday film employed stop-action animation, nor has a Disney holiday offering served up a scene in which Santa Claus is strapped to that venerable torture device, the rack.

‘DRIVE,’ HE SAID

Director Costa-Gavras, who last directed the did-he-or-didn’t-he drama “The Music Box,” will likely move to another from the same genre. TriStar is mounting “Sycamore Drive,” penned by “Fatal Attraction” scripter James Dearden, in which a female journalist exposes a man accused of killing his wife, then tries to clear his name when she becomes convinced he didn’t do it. The director’s reading the latest script draft this weekend, rewritten by Peter Osterlund and Amy Baker.

‘BEYOND’ DEALMAKING

Producers Eric Pleskow and Barry Spikings, who’ve been trying for months to set up the John Boorman-directed adventure “Beyond Rangoon” at TriStar, have finally placed the picture at Castle Rock, Buzz hears. According to sources, the film was slated to go to TriStar, where Pleskow and Spikings have a distribution arrangement. But TriStar execs sat on the fence too long, then found themselves between a Castle Rock and a hard place. The producers are still looking for a leading man. “Beyond Rangoon” has the same problem as two other films to be distribbed by Columbia, “Mistress of the Seas” and “Before and After”: They’re all vehicles for women, and there’s not enough of a male lead role to hook a top actor. Usually, it’s the other way around.

NO CHANGE

Robert Rodriguez’s debut feature, “El Mariachi,” was shot in 14 days on a budget of $ 7,000 before Columbia bought the film and spent $ 100,000 to improve its look and sound. Though Rodriguez is hardly scraping by on the multiyear deal Col gave him, he isn’t letting his success go to his head. “El Mariachi” is screening at the Deauville Film Festival, and French distributor Les Films Number 1 is flying Rodriguez into France to push the pic. Anxious to give their man the Hollywood treatment, Columbia/TriStar’s PR machine suggested that Les Films Number 1 topper Pierre Kalfon splash out on two first-class air tickets, have a limo waiting at the airport and generally roll out the red carpet. Kalfon was ready to oblige until Rodriguez phoned to say he would be traveling alone and the less expensive business class would be fine by him.STONEWALLING

Hollywood has finally gotten the guts to invest in movies about gay subject matter. Now the BBC is hoping to find out how bullish the town really is.

The Beeb bought “Stonewall,” the bestselling Dutton book by Martin Duberman about the Stonewall riot in 1969 that is considered the seminal event in the formation of gay pride. Nigel Finch (“The Lost Language of Cranes”) will direct the project, once a screenwriter is found. According to Finch, the BBC’s looking for an American partner interested in a limited theatrical release, broadcast rights or video.

“It’ll be called ‘The Night Judy Garland Died,’ because the riots took place on the day of her funeral,” says Finch. Garland was a gay icon, and while gays were mourning her death at a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn, the cops came in to clear out those in drag. That was a regular occurrence, but that night the patrons rebelled. “The customers decided enough was enough, and they took on the New York police and staged a riot. The transvestites formed a kind of chorus line of defiance,” Finch relates.

The pic’s being targeted for the 25th anniversary of the three-day riot, in which the bar was burned to the ground. “It was the single most important event that took place in terms of gay or sexual politics in America,” says Finch. “It was the first time gay men stood up and were counted.”

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE

Hollywood Pictures’ “Smoke and Mirrors,” the megabudget magician movie that fell apart when Sean Connery and director Frank Marshall did disappearing acts, is magically coming back together again.

Cinergi’s Andy Vajna, not wanting to waste an almost $ 2 million investment and a promising script by Lee and Janet Batchler, may yet pull a rabbit out of his hat. Most importantly, Connery is in talks to return to the starring role of the master French magician sent to colonize an African country by using illusion and magic tricks. In addition, Mel Gibson is seriously considering taking the main supporting role.

All of this hinges on the director, of course. They’re reportedly focusing on three possibilities: Andy Davis of “The Fugitive,” Wolfgang Petersen of “In the Line of Fire” and Ridley Scott of “Thelma and Louise.”

AFTER ‘INNOCENCE’

Following “The Age of Innocence,” Martin Scorsese is being lobbied to direct everything from “Clockers” to “The Gangs of New York.”

Buzz hears he’s close to committing to “Oceans of Storm,” the astronaut love story to star and be produced by Warren Beatty. The story is by Tony Bill and Ben Mason.

Beatty has been seriously romancing the director, and now, the key question is which studio gets it. Sources say Fox and Universal are the two prime contenders, but Universal has the edge: Scorsese owes his next movie to U, which has him under an exclusive deal and just allowed Scorsese to do his labor of love –“The Age of Innocence”– at Columbia. The studio’s unlikely to be in the mood to let him work elsewhere again.

WHY NOT ‘HAM ON RYE’?

Things couldn’t have gone worse in Sony’s handling of the Heidi Fleiss scandal, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they chose a phallic reference for a code name to refer to the flesh-peddling scandal.

Buzz hears the in-house code name is “Tower.” But its origins are quite innocent, and not, as some might suspect, because Fleiss lives on Tower Grove Road. It came from the famed West L.A. deli Junior’s, where execs ordered sandwiches while trying to figure out the Fleiss mess. The slogan at Junior’s is: “We tower above the rest.” Sony declined comment.

SEX AND THE SINGLE GUY

Thankfully, Washington, D.C.’s morality play on the TV biz isn’t having much of an effect on TV’s critical fave sitcom, “Seinfeld.” Last season, co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David did a now-legendary episode devoted to masturbation. Buzz hears one of the first fall episodes will be devoted to the orgasm. To complete the trilogy, might there be a future episode devoted to the post-coital cigarette?

THE RIVER OF HIGH RETURNS

Once again Jeffrey Katzenberg is issuing coveted invites for a few days of male bonding and white-water rafting on the Colorado River in early September. The invite creates a quandary: Everybody wants to be on the power list, but these guys live for deals, not danger.

The river’s rough and, particularly on Crystal Rapids and Lava Falls, the rafts often capsize. But who can turn down a personal invite from the all-powerful Jeffrey?

Anyway, Buzz hears the chosen few will include ICM’s Bill Block and Jim Wiatt , attorney Jake Bloom, UTA’s Jim Berkus, “Dragon” director Rob Cohen, New Regency head Steve Reuther, Tony Danza, Brillstein/Grey’s Brad Grey, Hollywood Pictures chief Ricardo Mestres, CAA’s Mike Menchel and John Ptak, William Morris’ Arnold Rifkin, “Home Improvement” creator Matt Williams and star Tim Allen.

Since the rafts are bereft of females, Buzz proposes a rival fleet with Par’s Sherry Lansing, Col’s Lisa Henson, Dawn Steel, ICM’s Elaine Goldsmith, William Morris’s Joan Hyler, Nora Ephron, producers Paula Wagner, Paula Weinstein and Denise DiNovi, and Roseanne Barr. Ten bucks says they beat the macho men down the river.

A WRENCH IN THE DEAL

Maybe Jeffrey Katzenberg had better place “Home Improvement’s” Tim Allen on the other side of the raft. Allen is hardly a happy camper after a Disney merchandising effort derailed an endorsement deal for Allen worth more than $ 8 million. Allen has been the principal spokesman for the hardware superstore chain Builder’s Square, and has been working on a contract extension. Unbeknownst to Allen, Disney made a “Home Improvement” merchandising deal with Cooper Tools, a low-priced line of hand tools.

Since the Builder’s Square chain doesn’t even carry Cooper products, when the execs heard about the Cooper deal, they looked like they’d been hit by a claw hammer. Then they pulled Allen’s deal off the table, Buzz hears. Allen and his managers have been threatening to sue Disney, and the Mouse has to decide whether to make up the money, cancel the Cooper deal or risk alienating its franchise tube star. Disney wouldn’t comment.

BUSY PEN

Is any scribe busier right now than John Fasano? He turned 32 last week, and has had little time to celebrate.

Fasano, whose spurt occurred after a switch from ICM to William Morris, just finished scripting “Die Hard III” for Cinergi, is starting the feature “Hawaii Five-O” for Hollywood Pix, sold a TV series, “Posse,” to Fox, and just rewrote “Tombstone” and “Smoke and Mirrors,” the latter two as part of his new overall script-doctoring deal at Cinergi.

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