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Cost-wary Sony TKOs ‘Ali’ biopic

SPE officials to meet with Mann to trim costs

Cost-consciousness at Sony Pictures Entertainment has led to a housecleaning of several star-studded films. Now, the biopic of boxing great Muhammad Ali is the latest in danger of being dropped to the canvas.

SPE has given the pic a technical knockout, putting the project into turnaround late last week because of a budget projected to surpass the studio’s $105 million cap.

Skeptics caution that move may just be a bargaining ploy, intended to rein in a headstrong helmer. SPE will hold a final meeting today with filmmaker Michael Mann, to see if the cost can somehow be trimmed so that he may direct Will Smith in the role of boxing’s most charismatic heavyweight champion as scheduled. But Columbia is holding fast to the figure, which means that Mann may have to shop it elsewhere for financing.

The Ali project joins several potentially prestigious but pricey star-studded non-genre films that the studio has either abandoned or laid off rights to.

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‘Shipping’ sinks

One recent casualty is the Lasse Hallstrom-directed adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie L. Proulx novel “The Shipping News,” which has Kevin Spacey set to star, with “Hannibal” headliner Julianne Moore close to set as his love interest.

Miramax has taken over the latter film, which deals with the dicey prospect of a man rebuilding his life by moving to Newfoundland after rescuing his daughters, whom his wife sold into prostitution.

New Line has taken over two SPE-originated films: the Alexander Payne-directed dark drama “About Schmidt,” with Jack Nicholson expected to star; and “Life as a House,” the macabre but riveting script by “As Good as It Gets” scribe Mark Andrus which will star Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas.

SPE will still distribute “Adaptation,” the reteaming of “Being John Malkovich” director-scripter team of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. But the financial burden of the film, which stars Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, has been assumed by Intermedia.

Bets conservative

The recent housecleaning has been part of an effort by SPE to place its bets conservatively on sequels and pics with high commercial potential, to offset the 10 pics on its 2001 release schedule being financed by Joe Roth’s upstart Revolution Studios. “We’re not going to make movies for audiences that need to be dynamited out of their homes,” SPE chairman John Calley told Daily Variety. “I would rather make ‘Star Wars’ than ‘Man’s Fate.’ ”

Mann’s fate in making the Ali pic could unleash a star war the studio doesn’t want, as the star in question, Smith, is front and center in one of SPE’s most important films, the sequel to its highest grosser ever, “Men in Black.”

As the Ali deals were being negotiated, Smith has warmed to donning the Ray-Bans and the dark suit once again with Tommy Lee Jones for director Barry Sonnenfeld.

Big role for Smith

But Ali is the role of his career, and Smith has been working so hard in the gym to play the fighter that speculation is he may rethink the “MIB 2” proposition if Mann and producer Jon Peters are unable to set up the Ali project elsewhere.

The latter, however, is such a high-profile, star-studded undertaking that one of those entities with German stock market funding might gamble on it as a way to become a player in a big film, despite the so-so results of boxing’s last big biopic, “The Hurricane.”

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