MGM plants ‘Tree’ for Christmas ’01

Lensing for buddy pic begins Feb. 1

NEW YORK — MGM has made a negative pickup deal with producer Chuck Gordon that greenlights “The Tree,” a Christmas road comedy that marks the first starring vehicle for Johnny Knoxville, who toplines the upstart MTV show “Jackass.” Steve Surjik (“Wayne’s World 2”) will direct.

Knoxville will be paid low seven figures to star in the buddy comedy about an uptight presidential aide who must rely on an eccentric trucker to transport a Christmas tree from Washington state to Washington, D.C., in time for the holiday celebration. Knoxville plays the trucker, and the search is on for his partner.

The film is reminiscent of the John Hughes comedy “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” in that the mismatched pair overcome all kinds of adversity to complete their mission, bonding in the process. The script was written by Alex Sokolow and Joel Cohen, the tandem behind “Money Talks.” Filming will begin Feb. 1 so that MGM can get the pic into theaters for Christmas 2001.

Gordon’s Daybreak Prods. is co-financing the film with MGM, with Winchester Films serving as Gordon’s foreign sales agent and Daybreak’s Marc Sternberg as exec producer. Gordon has been developing the comedy for about four years, waiting for the right guy to play the trucker.

Knoxville’s MTV show, which features him as the center of radical pranks and dangerous stunts, has him fast following in the footsteps of the web’s other comic presence, Tom Green. MTV got huge ratings for the show’s debut and has ordered 16 more episodes. Knoxville made his feature starring debut in the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed ensemble Disney comedy “Big Trouble,” and studios suddenly became very interested in the film.

“The Tree” seemed rooted at MGM until several months ago, then was transplanted to Universal. Paramount/MTV Films, Fox and MGM battled through last week for the pic, with MGM making the deal on Thursday night.

MGM got all North American rights on the modestly budgeted film for under $10 million.

Surjik and Knoxville are CAA repped, and Knoxville is managed by Handprint Entertainment.