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Virus pic fever infects Fox, WB

The race between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox to get a major motion picture on track dealing with a lethal virus moved into a dead heat late last week.

Two A-list directors have committed to the competing projects, which have been running neck-and-neck for the past year. Wolfgang Petersen will helm Arnold Kopelson’s “Outbreak” for WB, while Ridley Scott has signed on to direct “Crisis in the Hot Zone” for Lynda Obst and Fox.

Robert Redford, meanwhile, is being sought for both pictures, although the star has not yet committed to either.

The intense contest began after an article appeared in the New Yorker last year detailing the story of an Army biological SWAT team in Maryland fighting to contain a wildly infectious virus after a near-fatal outbreak.

Hollywood quickly caught wind of a potential film blockbuster and several producers began a bidding war for the rights. At the forefront of the war were Kopelson and Fox, which brought in Obst, who snagged the rights to the New Yorker story.

Her “Hot Zone,” an RCS/PMT Films/Fox production, is based on both the New Yorker article, written by Richard Preston, and the life stories of Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax and her husband, Col. Gerald Jaax. Fox has also obtained the rights to their life stories.

Obst, Mimi Polk, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver will produce the Fox film, which is due to go into production in May. Jaffa and Silver are the screenwriting/producing partners who originally tipped Fox off to the New Yorker article.

Kopelson’s “Outbreak,” meanwhile, is being written by Laurence Dworet, a doctor who for the last 20 years has specialized in lethal viruses, and Robert Roy Pool. Oscar winner Ted Tally (“The Silence of the Lambs”) has been brought in to polish the story of a doctor who tries to contain and combat the plague.

Kopelson, Petersen and Gail Katz will produce the film.

Both stories have striking similarities, since they are about Army doctors faced with having to contain a deadly virus before it lays waste to an entire continent.

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