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‘Men’ treads carefully into sequel territory

THOSE TRYING TENTPOLES: Columbia has started development on a third installment of “Men In Black,” but don’t break out the Ray Bans yet. Pic’s careful early course underscores how hard it is to assemble tentpoles.

Barry Sonnenfeld’s returning to develop a sequel idea Will Smith pitched to him with Tommy Lee Jones. While the holdup on “MIB2” was a prohibitive gross pay out, the peril here is potential clashes. Producer Walter Parkes and Sonnenfeld don’t get along, evidenced by the latter’s exit from “Lemony Snicket” when Par invited DreamWorks to partner. Smith and Jones won’t do the film without Sonnenfeld, so Sony’s plan is to let the director run with Smith’s concept. Parkes would take a back seat.

Tentpoles always cause migraines; now the headaches arrive earlier in the process. The vast ancillary and DVD potential of “Superman” has been overshadowed by a $225 million budget and loud fights between director Brett Ratner and producer Jon Peters. Ratner wants to make three pics. Can he withstand the grief? WB’s also in for a headache or two trying to lock the “Ocean’s Eleven” cast for a sequel. Everybody halved salary and gross last time. Why should Matt Damon take less than George Clooney and Brad Pitt, after carrying the hit “The Bourne Identity?” Soderbergh and producer Jerry Weintraub will want gross as will Julia Roberts if she’s back. Even if everybody halves gross deals, WB could still give up 34%, a tall order for a pic with no toy deals.

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PAR SPAR: Don’t invite Lynda Obst and Par exec Dede Gardner to the same table read. Making the rounds is a dishy missive Gardner wrote to fellow Par execs informing them that, at Obst’s request, Gardner will no longer work with the producer. “The reason she has cited is my incompetence as an executive, that I have ‘tanked’ all her projects,” Gardner wrote, concluding that “In my humble but misguided and incompetent opinion, (Obst) should be thrown off the fucking lot. She is addled, confused and nasty….” The memo adds to low Par morale. Three Par execs are said to be jockeying to run Brad Pitt and Brad Grey’s WB-based film shingle. Gardner might get the job, but Par won’t let her out of a contract that runs at least six more months. Lynda Obst called the memo “a very perplexing reaction after the success of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” Bitterness was exacerbated by the hiring of Tom Jacobson to share production duties with John Goldwyn. “Whenever someone senior comes in, there is a period of adjustment,” Goldwyn said. “Tom is a seasoned and talented executive and I’m thrilled he’s here.”

HELLACIOUS DEAL: Development hell prompted producer Tony Lord and exec David Cohen to try screenwriting. They’ve landed a first six-figure deal from Summit on “Black Sabbath,” about a cop who escapes from hell. “Can you tell that this was written by a couple of guys with long experience in film development?” Cohen joked. He and Lord hope this means they’ve escaped hell themselves. This columnist writes deal stories every day, always trying to channel the enthusiasm of writers and producers, while knowing my Daily Variety story probably will be the only release the movie will get. Producer Lord and ex-partner Matt Weaver set up a slew of projects. “Chain of Fools” got made at WB by the Swedish directing quintet Traktor. “We completed it three years ago and it still awaits release,” said Lord.

Cohen’s tour of development hell came courtesy of Mike Ovitz’s APG, where Cohen worked on Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six” and many projects that didn’t get made. Tired of hearing Lord and Cohen complain, BWCS agent Emile Gladstone paired them and told them to start writing. “Very few people come to town to be development execs,” Gladstone said. “They want to write or direct, but get intoxicated with a paycheck.” The savvy helped them forge a franchisable concept that enabled a quick sale. Gladstone did his best to spare the scribes a glimpse of writers’ hell by selling it to Summit prexy Eric Feig, because that company makes most everything it buys.

DISHINGS: Salma Hayek deserves an award for selflessness. After eight years working on “Frida,” her salary was SAG minimum $70,000… Harrison Ford’s ankled “A Walk Among the Tombstones”… Katie Holmes is the front-runner for Joel Schumacher’s “Phantom of the Opera.” She’s working with a vocal coach.

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