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Schumacher trims sails

“Batman 5” will have to wait in line, as director Joel Schumacher has committed to direct a bigscreen version of “Dreamgirls” along with three comparatively low-budget pics, starting with his next, “8 Millimeter.”

Schumacher has set Joaquin Phoenix to co-star with Nicolas Cage in Columbia’s “Millimeter” which begins shooting Feb. 2.

David Geffen will produce “Dreamgirls” (the musical directed and choreographed on stage by the late Michael Bennett), eyeing a 1999 start. Though Schumacher is one of the most commercially successful directors in Hollywood thanks to big-budget pics like “Batman Forever,” he has made it clear he’ll alter course and do three lower-budgeted films where the dominant special effect will be emotion.

The gritty “8 Millimeter” features a script by Andrew Kevin Walker, with Gavin Polone and Judy Hofflund producing.

Schumacher plans to follow that with a Sept. 1 start for his own relationship script “Flawless.” He’ll follow with “Popcorn,” based on Ben Elton’s novel, which he’ll do in a “Wag the Dog”-like 28-day shoot with Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, Nathan Lane and Patricia Arquette.

“I never planned to be the summer blockbuster guy,” said Schumacher. “I began small, and all of these things just started happening and before you knew it, I’m up to my neck in John Grishams and Batman films. I’m grateful for all of it, but felt, especially on ‘Batman & Robin,’ that the box office had become more important than the movie. I wanted to return to filmmaking, not blockbustermaking.

“When you do one of those movies, there’s no gray area. Either it’s a hit or a flop. But you can be disappointed in the box office of a film like ‘L.A. Confidential,’ and still regard it as a superb movie. I was looking for something unique and risky. I had been a fan of Andy Kevin Walker’s writing since ‘Seven,’ and this was so original and dark. I feel I’m doing this for my sanity.”

Cage will play an investigator hired by a woman to find out if a snuff film she found in her husband’s vault is real. Phoenix, who made a strong impression as the lovestruck killer in “To Die For” and is currently starring in “Force Majeure,” serves as the private eye’s tour guide into that sleazy world.

Schumacher said he’s developing the “Dreamgirls” script with Tina Andrews, who worked on “Soul Food” and wrote “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” for director Gregory Nava. The musical’s about a trio of young black songstresses in the early ’60s, trying to cross over onto the white-dominated pop charts. The roles call for beautiful young black singers, and Schumacher said there’s a wealth of them he’s eyeing for starring roles.After “Dreamgirls,” Schumacher hopes to return to George Clooney and the Batfranchise. Though “Batman & Robin” grossed more than $100 million, its high cost and higher expectations left a feeling of disappointment, a fact not lost on Schumacher. After all, it was Schumacher who revived a flagging franchise with “Batman Forever.”

“I’d like to do one more, but I think we need to wait,” said Schumacher, who indicated he’d like to scrap an early plan to stock the next film with villains Harley Quinn and Scarecrow.

“I felt I disappointed a lot of older fans by being too conscious of the family aspect,” Schumacher said. “I’d gotten tens of thousands of letters from parents asking for a film their children could go to. Now, I owe the hardcore fans the Batman movie they would love me to give them.”

However, Schumacher says that if he had his choice, this Batman would not be by the numbers.

“Bob (Daly) and Terry (Semel) would like me to do another, and I have an idea of a way to go that would be far less expensive. But this is my own idea, and they may kick me onto Barham Boulevard after they hear it.”

OF JAMES BONDAGE: The rivalry between MGM/UA and Sony over the James Bond franchise thickens.

Dish hears that Sony topper John Calley is courting Sean Connery to star, and “Godzilla” tandem Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to direct and produce, respectively. Though none of them has decided, grudges may motivate them to say yes. Connery did “Never Say Never Again,” the first remake of “Thunderball,” partly to stick it to producer Cubby Broccoli, who he felt never paid him his worth. Though Sony bought “Thunderball,” Connery might like to reclaim his Bond identity and thwart the Broccoli-controlled Bond franchise again. And Emmerich and Devlin didn’t have much fun working with MGM when the studio distribbed their sleeper sci-fi hit “Stargate,” because the duo felt the studio didn’t get behind the film until it opened strongly.

Adding to the intrigue, Dish also hears that Pierce Brosnan, who’s played Bond for the two most recent MGM/UA pics, met Martin Scorsese at a social event and asked if he might consider doing a Bond turn. Though Scorsese made no commitment, he didn’t say no and seemed receptive.

Any Sony film is predicated on that studio successfully fighting the whopping lawsuit MGM filed to protect its Bond franchise and challenge Sony’s plan.

Sony was mum, but an MGM spokesman said: “Regardless of who Sony may claim to be in talks with, MGM has all rights to James Bond and will block in court any attempts by Sony to proceed with a James Bond film in any way.”

WYLE DRAWS A BLANK: “ER” star Noah Wyle’s been named artistic producer of L.A.’s Blank Theatre Co., where he’ll work with fellow artistic producer Christopher Collet and longtime artistic director Daniel Henning to step up the acting company’s presence.

“I got involved seven years ago when I auditioned, and got a role in ‘Sexual Perversity in Chicago,’ and now that I’m on a show and I have extra money, it seemed a natural step,” said Wyle. The company recently took over the Second Stage on Santa Monica Boulevard and is eyeing larger space as well.

Blank puts on four shows a year along with a reading series and young playwrights festival for writers under 20. “I’ll be hitting the fundraising circuit hard,” Wyle said.

Henning thinks Wyle could spark some serious growth for Blank. “We’ve had notoriety, won lots of awards, but we’ve never had any money,” said Henning. “We’ve relied on scrap lumber and patchwork costumes long enough.”

CAMPUS CONVERGENCE: Studios continue to raid college campuses for youth-oriented material: Paramount-based Mutual Film Co. has optioned an article written by Bob Corbett while he was a senior at Southern Methodist U. The six-figure sum, while not huge by Hollywood standards, may be an all-time record for an article that ran in a campus newspaper.

Corbett got hold of a sorority rush manual, which divulged the secrets of hazing and other unpleasantries. He published it in the SMU Student Voice and lampooned it, incurring the wrath of the sisters. Mutual will hatch a film about what happens when a senior’s social and personal life is systematically ruined after he writes the article.

Mutual’s Michael Dahan brought in the article, and prexy Allison Segan made the deal. Corbett was repped by Original Artists’ Jordan Bayer and Matt Leipzig and Lisa Santos of Baumgarten-Prophet Entertainment. Mutual will attach a writer shortly.

The move follows TriStar’s wiping out the student loans of USC student/scribe Ben Schwartz by guaranteeing $550,000 for his autobiographical script “Providence” and a followup.

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