‘Ref’ scores, Leary soars

Cigarette smoking Denis Leary is absolutely smoking hot at Walt Disney Studios as Buena Vista Distribution, Hollywood Pictures and Simpson/Bruckheimer Prods. have lined up plans to test whether he will emerge as Hollywood’s next big-time comic.

Included in Disney’s backing of Leary’s career are plans for a major marketing blitz for the March 11 release “The Ref,” a summer greenlight on his next feature “Two if by Sea” (for which he’ll receive $ 1 million) and negotiations on an overall-term deal for the comic as writer/producer/star, sources said Thursday.

Studio sources said the Leary push is because of the solid test screenings for the Touchstone Pictures film “The Ref,” which evolved from a low-budget comedy with modest expectations into what the studio thinks is a potential breakout.

Purely Leary

Budgeted at $ 11 million, “The Ref” is being pitched as purely a Denis Leary movie, including one-sheets and print advertisements that spotlight the comedian as a madcap macho man, as well as an MTV special directed by “The Ref” filmmaker Ted Demme slated to debut concurrent with the film’s release.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer predicted that “The Ref” will “break Denis out” as a major star. He added that he and partner Don Simpson see the fast-talking Leary as “a quadrauple threat as an actor, comedian, writer and soon, I’m sure, a director.”

Directing chores may be somewhere on the horizon, but Leary partnered with Mike Armstrong to pen his next Disney movie, “Two if by Sea,” which is about a low-level art thief who travels to an island with his girlfriend to fence a painting he believes is worth $10,000. By the time he discovers the work is actually worth $ 4 million, he’s already been duped out of the precious picture.

‘Sea’ pitch

“Two if by Sea” was purchased as a pitch by Hollywood Pictures president Ricardo Mestres more than a year ago. Simpson/Bruckheimer was officially brought on as producers of the project last month, when Mestres and Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg gave “Two if by Sea” the greenlight. Hollywood Pictures veepee of production Mike Stenson is the studio point person on “Two if by Sea,” while executive veepee Lucas Foster is spearheading the project for Simpson/Bruckheimer.

Walt Disney Studios had an option on Leary to do another movie for them as part of its deal with him to star in “The Ref,” and sources said Leary will receive more than $ 1 million as writer and star of “Two if by Sea.” The project is currently out to directors, and sources indicated that Hollywood Pictures is hoping to have a filmmaker inked on the project over the next three weeks. Production is targeted for May or June.

Leary is also writing with Armstong a third picture for Disney, which has director Demme attached. Titled “Noose,” the project would reunite the Demme/Leary team from “The Ref.” Negotiations are ongoing with Tribeca Prods. to produce.

The spate of activity between Leary and Disney has prompted representatives to formalize the relationship. His William Morris Agency agents James Dixon and Michael Gruber are negotiating a first-look term deal with the studio, which could be finalized in the next several weeks.

Disney is unfolding a full-scale marketing blitz for director Demme’s “The Ref,” which includes sneak previews this weekend, an opening in New York and Los Angeles designed to build word of mouth on Wednesday and a March 11 wide release to 700 screens.

Producer Bruckheimer said Buena Vista Pictures Marketing vice president Terry Press “literally begged us for a print of ‘The Ref’ ” to generate early word of mouth with the press. In fact, the studio took the unusual tack of showing a rough cut of the film to select media as a way to get things started up.

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