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Inside Move: ‘Potter’ searching for new helmer

Cuaron, Khouri, Branagh mulled as possible choices

With “Harry Potter” the hottest franchise in franchise-hungry Hollywood, why is everything to do with the property so up in the air?

The fifth book in J.K. Rowling’s megaselling series is way behind schedule, much to the agitation of publishers and booksellers. And Warner Bros. is eyeing some wild cards to take over directing chores on the “Potter” pics’ third installment.

One name that can safely be crossed off the list: Chris Columbus, who directed both “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and next year’s sequel, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” He told the studio he wants to bring his family home after living in Blighty for more than a year.

Alfonso Cuaron, who helmed Spanish-lingo hit “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” is high among the list of candidates. The Mexican director, known for the lush visuals and adult sophistication in pics including “Great Expectations,” also directed the kid-friendly “A Little Princess,” based on Frances Hodgson Burnett novel.

Also on the list: Callie Khouri (“The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) and hyphenate Kenneth Branagh, who plays Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defense of the Dark Arts instructor at Hogwarts, in the franchise’s second pic installment.

Cuaron recently received a copy of scribe Steve Kloves’ new (and carefully controlled) script for round three in the series, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and is in conversations with Warner Bros. production topper Lorenzo di Bonaventura about his ideas for the pic.

Cuaron is attached to helm an adaptation of P.D. James’ 1992 “The Children of Men.”

Meanwhile, Potter fans are puzzling over the unfinished fifth book, tentatively titled “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

Scholastic, which has sold nearly 70 million copies of the first four books, was hoping to publish the book in July. But Rowling has told her publishers she needs more time to finish, prompting Scholastic to assure antsy shareholders they can expect the book by June 2003.