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Household diva’s TV bio simmering

The Write Stuff: Jonathan Bing

The self-made billionaire diva of homemaking, Martha Stewart, is the subject of a biopic in the early stages of development at NBC, based on Christopher Byron’s new bestseller “Martha Inc.”

Jaffe/Braunstein producer Howard Braunstein optioned the book and set it up as a potential two-hour movie at NBC. Peacock and Braunstein are on the hunt for a scribe to adapt Byron’s book for the small screen.

Published by Wiley in March, “Martha Inc.” tells how Stewart, born to a working-class New Jersey family, created her media and merchandising empire, becoming the richest self-made woman in American business.

Byron, whose “Back of the Envelope” column now runs in the New York Post after several years at the New York Observer, said the book emerged from an Observer column about Stewart’s successful IPO.

Byron, a neighbor of Stewart’s in Westport, Conn., said she offered to cooperate with the book, then withdrew the offer. “What she wanted was, I’d go take notes on her life story as told by her, which you can read every month in her magazine,” he said.

“I went to a lot of trouble to be fair and I’m sure the portrait in this is complete, three-dimensional and accurate,” he said. “She’s got the largest cult following on earth. There are people who think she really walks on water.”

That’s part of the appeal of the TV movie, Braunstein said. “This is a person who created a billion-dollar business out of nothing,” he said. “I read it in a manuscript and thought, ‘This really is the American dream.’ ”

NBC exec VP longform/alternative Jeff Gaspin and telepic VP Stephen Bulka are developing the project at the Peacock. Gaspin said he knew he wanted to adapt Byron’s book as soon as he read it.

“It’s a classic rags-to-riches story of one of the most famous icons of our generation,” Gaspin said. “You’ve got this woman on TV telling viewers how to turn doilies into wedding gowns who then walks into a corporate boardroom and kicks ass. With the right tone, it could be a lot of fun.”

If greenlit, Gaspin said, the telepic will have a somewhat softer edge than Byron’s book.

“I hope we can have a more tongue-in-cheek approach,” he said.

While NBC has gotten out of the movie-of-the week business, “Martha Inc.” fits right in with Gaspin’s strategy of creating a handful of easily promotable, pop culture-themed pics each season. “Martha Inc” is being developed for May 2003 at the earliest; it would more likely air during the 2003-04 season.

At least one network was probably never a potential destination for “Martha Inc”: CBS. Eye’s syndie sibling, King World, distributes Stewart’s daily talker and would not want to risk offending her.

Byron, repped by WMA, has written several books, but “Martha Inc.” is the first to be optioned for the screen.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, who has toiled for years on “Megalopolis,” his ambitious, long-delayed film about an urban renewal project in New York, was surprised to learn it could bump up against “Cosmopolis,” a new novel about New York by Don DeLillo.

The novels have very different protagonists. “Cosmopolis,” under contract to Scribner, is a surreal account of a Dana Giacchetto-like financier who’s staked his company’s fortunes on a disastrous bet on the currency exchange. Story takes place over the course of one day as he crosses from the East Side to West Side of Manhattan in a tricked-out limo, encountering various women and violent anti-capitalist protesters while being stalked by a former employee. Gersh is shopping the novel to filmmakers.

“Megalopolis” centers on the city officials involved in rebuilding New York after a disastrous incident.

But Coppola told Daily Variety the term “Cosmopolis” — which refers to Alexander the Great’s effort to unite the East and West and the rise of a vast impersonal city ruled by bureaucracy — resonates with his own project.

“He’s fiddling around with some of the same things I’m fiddling around with,” he said.

“Megalopolis,” budgeted at roughly $65 million, has met with a long series of setbacks. It went into pre-production last summer with a handful of celebrity readings and some 30 minutes of second-unit footage, but was put on hold after Sept. 11. Coppola said pre-production will begin again in the fall.

DeLillo has had his share of setbacks in Hollywood.

His celebrated 1997 novel “Underworld” was optioned by Scott Rudin, but the option lapsed. It’s now under option to producer-director Robert Greenwald, who’s in discussions to turn it into a limited series.

“White Noise,” which may be his best-known novel, is being developed at Disney by Barry Sonnenfeld.

But to date, none of his novels has successfully made the transition to the screen.

Perhaps “Megalopolis” and “Cosmopolis” would both pick up steam if Coppola optioned DeLillo’s book and merged the two projects?

RECLUSIVE 1970S AUTEUR Michael Cimino is looking for an American publisher for his novel “Big Jane.”

Published last fall by the French house Gallimard, the book is a road-novel about Big Jane, an androgynous, 6-foot-tall woman who traverses the country by motorcycle and winds up in the Korean War.

Steven Bach’s classic account of Cimino’s disastrous 1980 film “Heaven’s Gate” is called “Final Cut.” The March issue of Vanity Fair carried a story, “Michael Cimino’s Final Cut,” suggesting Cimino is considering a sex-change operation and detailing his new writing projects, including “Big Jane” and a script he’s adapted from the 1933 Andre Malraux novel “Man’s Fate.”

Cimino told Vanity Fair he doesn’t want a woman to edit the American edition of “Big Jane.”

Gallimard, which handles world rights and has sold the novel in Germany, Japan, Italy and Portugal, may not share that prejudice.

“American publishers seem reticent to consider an American manuscript not presented by an American agent, but by a French publisher,” said Anne-Solange Noble, Gallimard’s foreign rights director. “It’s too bad they react in such a way. They should let themselves be surprised, for once, and accept to do things a little differently.”

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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