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Willis folds ‘Ace’ hand

Move in synch with Rifkin's WMA exit

Bruce Willis, riding high on the box office success of “The Sixth Sense,” has abruptly dropped out of his next picture, the crime thriller “Ace in the Hole.”

While the reason for Willis’ departure from the project — due to begin shooting this fall — was unclear, the actor isn’t believed to be doing another film in its place.

Intermedia Films and Disney were co-financing the $50 million pic, to be directed by Josef Rusnak (“The Thirteenth Floor”). “Ace” is a co-production between Robert Newmeyer and Jeffrey Silver’s Outlaw Prods. and Willis’ Flying Heart Films. Buena Vista had North American rights while Intermedia was handling sales in the rest of the world.

Pic, from an original screenplay by Richard D’Ovidio, is about a brilliant professional con man, fresh out of prison, who is blackmailed into helping a casino boss evade an FBI investigation.

Willis — who had previously expressed enthusiasm for the “Ace” script — was understood to be receiving his standard fee for the pic, a payday in the $20 million range. While the box office success of “Sixth Sense” has renewed the value of Willis’ franchise, there was speculation that his decision was connected in some way to the exit of his representative, Arnold Rifkin, from the William Morris Agency.

Since Rifkin was replaced by Jim Wiatt on Aug. 9, the former WMA prexy has indicated that he is hatching a joint venture with Willis, but has declined to give details on its nature or purpose.

“Ace,” which was in early pre-production, will be re-packaged by its producers, sources said.

Neither Rifkin nor Intermedia could be reached for comment. Willis was out of the country on vacation and could not be reached.

(Charles Lyons contributed to this report.)

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