Miramax, Par spar over ‘Dunces’ rights

Rudin sez studio not ready to give up novel

NEW YORK — Two major companies are fighting over a project that’s been in development for eight years.

Miramax Films is attempting to acquire the rights to the Pulitzer Prize-winning John Kennedy Toole novel “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but it’s a tough row to hoe.

Miramax has sent Paramount a $1.5 million check to claim a project that is expected to be fasttracked with a script by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer, who’ll produce with Flower Films partners Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen.

Not so fast, says producer Scott Rudin, who was behind Paramount’s $1 million buy of the book back in 1993, when Soderbergh planned to direct the film right after his Sundance breakthrough with “sex, lies & videotape.”

Rudin said that the studio won’t cash the check and isn’t ready to give up the novel. “I fully intend to make the movie,” said Rudin. “It was a great project at its inception, and it’s still a great property. There are a handful of projects that are timeless, and this is one of them.”

Rudin said that since several elements have changed in the creative package — Soderbergh’s no longer the director, the script he co-wrote is not one Par has seen, and Barrymore and Juvonen are new producers — Paramount could and will challenge Miramax’s right to grab what has the potential to be a prestigious project.

Miramax sent the check Tuesday night, and Soderbergh and Kramer’s three-year period to set it up elsewhere expires today. The question is whether the changed elements complicate the studio switch.

Miramax wouldn’t comment, but Kramer, who optioned the book 21 years ago and has been trying to get the movie — a low-cost, prestige project — made since then, insists that Rudin and Paramount should get out of the way, since he and Soderbergh earned the right to place it elsewhere as the settlement of a lawsuit they brought against Par and Rudin in 1996 after claiming they’d been creatively shut out of the project.

“I don’t know why this has to be contentious, because part of that agreement is that we have the ability to buy Paramount out,” said Kramer. “This isn’t a turnaround deal and so a change of elements doesn’t apply.”

Soderbergh is working with Kramer on the next film he’ll direct after “Ocean’s Eleven,” so he won’t be behind the camera on “Confederacy.” Barrymore possibly could play an onscreen role, and Miramax has Philip Seymour Hoffman in its crosshairs to play the film’s protagonist, a paunchy intellectual named Ignatius J. Reilly who is forced to endure the indignity of working bad jobs.

“Dunces” is a comic novel that became a cult favorite on campuses, before winning the Pulitzer. Hollywood’s taken several prior cracks at it (Harold Ramis was once on board), and found renewed vigor in 1993 when Par and Rudin came on board.

USA BAGS “SERIES 7” ARCHITECT: After he made a strong impression on the low budget film “Series 7,” director Daniel Minahan is back with USA Films for another thriller, this one more ambitious. Minahan, who co-wrote “I Shot Andy Warhol” with Mary Harron and directed second unit on that film, debuted to great reviews with “Series 7,” a pre-“Survivor” entry in which contestants are armed, and the last standing wins his freedom. Minahan pitched a thriller, set in Los Angeles, and USA’s Scott Greenstein, Russell Schwartz and Donna Gigliotti made the deal with Minahan’s reps, CAA and manager Frank Frattaroli. Minahan shot “Series 7” for less than $1 million using digital photography that was transferred to film. He’ll be working with a larger budget this time around.

PANOPTIC EXPANSION: Panoptic Pictures partners Jeff Davidson and Ron Wechsler, who did the Miramax-distributed “Little City” and “The House of Yes,” are looking to expand. The duo, which is prepping the Nick Guthe-directed “Mini’s First Time” with David Kirkpatrick’s Original Voices, has made a three-year production management deal with commercials producer Stoney Road Productions. Panoptic is opening a literary management arm, PP/M, to liaison with Stoney Road’s inhouse-commercials directors. The ultimate goal is to provide the blurbmakers the chance to graduate to features and the arrangement came out of a relationship between Wechsler and Stoney Road prexy Michael Romersa when the latter was an ad agency producer at Lintas: New York. “Michael was looking for an outlet to become involved in feature films and we have come to realize that combining management and feature production is the wave of the future,” said Wechsler. “We now have great resources at our disposal and will be expanding those resources in the near future.” Next up for Panoptic is a deal that gives the partners access to feature funding.