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Affleck trying on ‘Cinderella’ slipper

Ben Affleck, who has closed a deal to play Jack Ryan in “The Sum of All Fears,” is in serious negotiations to star in the Universal/Miramax co-production “Cinderella Man,” with the studios also in talks with Billy Bob Thornton to direct, in hopes of a January production start. Affleck will play a regular guy who, during the Depression, takes boxing matches to feed his family. In the process, he becomes a folk hero.

“Cinderella Man” had numerous actors circling when it was originally to be directed by Penny Marshall, who has moved on to direct Drew Barrymore in Columbia’s “Riding in Cars With Boys,” and will be involved in “Cinderella Man” in a producing capacity. The fact-based boxer story was originally bought by Universal as a spec by Cliff Hollingsworth and rewritten by Charlie Mitchell. While the deals are still in the talking stage, Miramax is pushing to get two of its signature players in production right after the New Year. Thornton’s last film as a director was “All the Pretty Horses,” and he stars in MGM’s Barry Levinson-directed “Outlaws” and is paired with Frances McDormand in Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest untitled effort.

Affleck, who’s been working all summer on the Michael Bay-directed Disney epic “Pearl Harbor,” might step into the formidable footsteps of Harrison Ford in the Jack Ryan franchise before he does “Cinderella Man.” Ford starred as that character in two features. While he has had more success in sequels than any star in history, Ford let Paramount brass know early on that it was highly unlikely that he’d be back to topline “The Sum of All Fears.” The studio went ahead anyway with drafts by Akiva Goldsman and Paul Attanasio. Now that Affleck is set for the role, Paramount still has the film on a fast track.

While there was some speculation that Phil Noyce wouldn’t return after directing Ford in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger,” producer Mace Neufeld said that he will in fact be back, as will Neufeld, who produced all three pics, going back to the Alec Baldwin-starrer “Hunt for Red October,” the first adaptation of Tom Clancy’s bestselling series. Some script work will be done to tailor the script to Affleck, but it will not be extensive enough to keep the film on the hanger for long. In fact, a fall start is being eyed. Affleck is repped by CAA, Thornton by William Morris.

RODUCERS JOIN FORCES: Producers Barrie Osborne and Stephen Hamel are joining forces to form Company Films, a new company that has already put together an eclectic list of projects. Osborne is the producer of “Face/Off” and the currently-in-production trilogy “Lord of the Rings,” while Hamel’s credits include “Lovers and Other Animals.” The duo has purchased screen rights to the Norwegian novel “Hunger,” a groundbreaking autobiographical work by Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun about a writer’s unwillingness to temper his art even for his need to eat. The work, published in 1890 in Norway, was a major influence on writers like Herman Hesse and Ernest Hemingway. The novel will be adapted by Adam Coleman Howard (“Dark Harbor”) for a present day take, set in Washington, D.C.

The producers are also developing an untitled Greek epic, the story of a king who wishes to become a god who comes across a god who wishes to be mortal. The king, who can turn what he touches into gold, winds up losing everything, with his daughter caught in the middle between the king and the god. Hamel wrote the first draft and is poised to direct it, with Keanu Reeves keen on playing the god role, subject to scheduling and the script coming in as hoped. Hamel said he’s already put together much of the financing for a shoot at Cinecitta Studios in Italy, with commitments from Vittorio Storaro for DP, “Titus” costume designer Milena Canonero and production designer Dante Ferretti. Hamel’s a close friend of Reeves, while Osborne worked with him on “The Matrix.” Since that sequel will take up most of Reeves’s next year, scheduling will be tough. Hamel and Osborne are also teamed for “Axis Mundi,” a love story between an older New York woman and a young Inuit man who hunt for an explorer lost searching for the fountain of youth in the Arctic Circle. The script’s by Rudy Wurlitzer, whose credits include “Little Buddha.” “Hunger” scribe Adam Coleman Howard has also scripted “Hit Boy,” a dark comedy about a rich preppy boy framed for murder who gets sucked into the neon Miami underworld. Coleman Howard is repped by Mary J. Meagher of Independent Artists.

BRYSON’S OVERNIGHT SUCCESS: While author Bill Bryson’s return to the U.S. after two decades in England was a dose of culture shock, he’s making it pay off bigtime in Hollywood. Bryson recently set at ABC and Avnet-Kerner “A Walk in the Woods” about a mountain-climbing trip he took upon returning. Now, he’s gotten a series development deal with Imagine TV for his bestseller “I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes On Returning to America After 20 Years Away.” Published by Broadway Books, that book contains essays about how Bryson returned to face quandaries like dealing with processed food, the complexities of cable TV, and the current craze of filing lawsuits for every little slight. Bryson was repped in the deal by William Morris agent Bill Contardi and literary agent Jed Mattes.

MODEL MANEUVERS: While Drake Sather has written for such shows as “Larry Sanders” and “Newsradio,” the hottest concept he hatched has to be the self-absorbed male model Derek Zoolander, which has been unexpectedly transformed into a Paramount comedy produced by Scott Rudin and Joel Gallen, with Ben Stiller directing and starring in a pic he scripted along with Sather. Sather got the idea while writing for the VH-1 Fashion Awards in 1996, and he and the show’s producer, Gallen pursued Stiller to star as the character in a short film to air on the show. “He was a guy who takes himself way too seriously, giving his looks specific names, things like that,” said Sather, who recalled that Stiller nailed the role, but was afraid audiences wouldn’t like it. It was too late to pull it from the show, so Gallen let it run. “Suddenly, it became the biggest thing Ben ever did, everybody was talking about it. We did it again the following year, and then Ben and I turned it into the movie.” The pic begins production in September with Stiller and Owen Wilson in the starring roles, and it led Sather to get a blind script commitment from Rudin. Sather also signed an overall deal with Big Ticket Television. He’s coexec producing the claymation comedy “Gary and Mike” for the fall, and then he’ll create a new show all his own. He’s repped by Endeavor and managed by Jimmy Miller.

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