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U, Imagine clinch ‘Grinch’ pic deal

Howard to helm, Carrey to star in big-screen Dr. Seuss tale

NEW YORK — Universal and Imagine Films have landed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for a live-action feature. Ron Howard will helm with Jim Carrey attached to star, sources say.

The sale has the potential to be among the richest rights deals ever made in Hollywood.

U and Imagine will move quickly to bring Carrey aboard after the star sparked to the role of the creature with a heart two sizes too small who attempts to spoil Christmas in Whoville by dressing as Santa and stealing all the Who gifts, trees and holiday food.

The studio will pay an upfront rights fee approaching $5 million, but the deal component generating the most buzz is the backend potential that includes around 4% of first dollar gross, and an unprecedented merchandising and soundtrack take said to approach the 50% range.

Those figures far exceed what most studios would give away for the most established franchises, and those deal components kept merchandise-driven studios like Disney and DreamWorks from making bids.

Despite the high asking price, there was a firestorm of interest when news broke (Daily Variety, Sept. 8) that Audrey Geisel — widow of Theodor Geisel, who wrote under the pen name of Dr. Seuss — would sell rights to one of the most recognizable of literary characters for children. At the time, the upfront asking price was $3 million against $4 million, and four serious bidders emerged. But in the end, the final chapter in this sale story might be called “How Grazer Stole the Grinch.”

Universal held an initial pitch presentation last week, with Imagine partner Brian Grazer in attendance with “Pleasantville” director Gary Ross. U’s most serious competition was a spirited pitch meeting that featured Fox execs Bill Mechanic and Chris Meledandri, producers John Davis and Dave Phillips, and “Liar Liar” director Tom Shadyac, who envisioned Jack Nicholson in the Grinch role.

Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures also made a written proposal with director John Hughes, and “Outside Providence” director Michael Corrente made a presentation with “There’s Something About Mary” directors Peter and Bob Farrelly, who planned to write it as a vehicle for Carrey.

But Grazer returned for a second meeting Monday with a reconfigured bid and creative package that bowled over Geisel and her ICM reps Jeff Berg and Herb Cheyette. Grazer came accompanied by Universal Studios prexy/chief operating officer Ron Meyer and Universal Pictures chairman/CEO Casey Silver and, most importantly, his Imagine partner Ron Howard, who agreed to helm the film.

Audrey Geisel liked Howard’s take, as well as such past efforts as “Apollo 13.” Imagine also pledged to lobby their “Liar Liar” star Carrey for Grinch duty. That also pleased Geisel, who had just visited Carrey on the set of his Universal-based Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon.”

Despite the high price, the deal makes synergy sense for Universal, since the corporation already owns theme park rights to Dr. Seuss-created characters, and one of the “islands” in Universal’s Islands of Adventure will be devoted to Dr. Seuss. The billion-dollar theme park is scheduled to open in Orlando next summer.

“Grinch” will be placed on a fasttrack with Christmas 1999 a hoped-for target, although that might be an unreasonable expectation. In the past, a Howard-to-direct attachment wasn’t ironclad, such as when Imagine paid $3.75 million for rights to the John Grisham bestseller “The Chamber,” with Howard exiting before the movie began production. But Howard has made a more binding commitment here — if he were to steal away from “Grinch,” the deal would be nixed.

Imagine execs were at a movie screening late Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. ICM, which has a 30-year track record representing Theodor Geisel’s literary efforts and his estate after the author passed away in 1991 at the age of 87, also would not comment.

Carrey is repped by the Gold-Miller Co. and UTA. Howard is repped by CAA.

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