‘RKO 281’ downsized to HBO

Pact for telepic could be done within 10 days, source says

NEW YORK — HBO Pictures has become the odds-on favorite to produce Ridley Scott’s “RKO 281,” a proposed docudrama about the controversy that damaged the box office for “Citizen Kane.”

An HBO spokeswoman declined comment, but one source said the deal between HBO Pictures and Scott Free Prods., which owns the property, could be signed within the next 10 days.

Its prospects improved with the climax of a CBS primetime special on June 16 when a blue-ribbon American Film Institute poll chose “Citizen Kane,” directed by, and starring, Orson Welles, as the greatest American movie ever made.

Scott Free originally planned the docudrama as a theatrical movie, with Ridley Scott, a principal of Scott Free, assigned to direct it (Daily Variety, April 7). But a budget in excess of $40 million, on which Scott was insisting, turned off the major studios.

The studios became convinced that the grosses were unlikely to be stellarfrom a screenplay based on a documentary that originally ran on PBS’ “American Experience” series.

The docu focused on the hostile reaction to “Citizen Kane” from William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful American newspaper publisher of the 1930s and 1940s.

Hearst’s anger stemmed from his certainty that the movie was only a slightly fictionalized — and scurrilous — version of his own life and career. He decided to sabotage the movie by, among other tactics, ordering his newspapers not to take any “Citizen Kane” ads from the distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, and instigating his No. 1 gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to trash the picture at every opportunity.

Because HBO Pictures’ budgets are in the $10 million range, it’s fairly certain that Ridley Scott won’t direct the movie, and the cast is unlikely to include Madonna, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, all names that Scott Free was bandying about when the project was still a theatrical possibility.

(Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)