Big Night for Disney with two-pic pact

'Woods' to be first film under agreement

After scaring up more than a billion dollar worldwide gross for Disney with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has made a deal for two more pics with the studio.

The first pic will be “The Woods,” a thriller to star Ashton Kutcher, Joaquin Phoenix and Kirsten Dunst. Scott Rudin and Sam Mercer will produce and shooting will begin in October in Philadelphia for a summer 2004 release.

Set in 1897, “The Woods” tells the story of a close-knit community with a mythical race of creatures residing in the woods around them.

The deal was made by Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson and Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. While Disney long had a reputation for being so hard on directors that they couldn’t wait to make films elsewhere, the double feature deal with Shyamalan may be a sign that has changed.

Repeat biz

Jacobson and Cook also are doing repeat business with directors Wes Anderson and John Lee Hancock. In addition Joel and Ethan Coen are directing Tom Hanks starrer “The Ladykillers” and Chris Nolan will direct “The Prestige” for the studio after he finishes the next “Batman” film at Warner Bros.

“There is no more accurate report card of how we’re doing as a studio than our ability to command repeat business from our filmmakers,” Jacobson said. “Night has been one of the most important relationships we have, and it is comforting that we can look down the road at two movies, rather than have to negotiate all over again.”

Jacobson wouldn’t comment on deal terms, but Shyamalan’s UTA reps clearly brokered a deal that calls for eight-figures for each picture against gross participation, since that was the construct of the past two pics Disney snapped up preemptively. It had long been rumored that Shyamalan would make his next film for the studio, and Jacobson said they’d pre-negotiated a pact on condition that she and Cook liked the script.

“It came on Mother’s Day, and while I consider motherhood to be the greatest blessing of that day, the script was a close second,” she said. “I’d say the time lapse between us reading the script and greenlighting the movie was 45 seconds.”

Shyamalan said that he could conceivably make a movie elsewhere between “The Woods” and the second Disney project if another studio offered him an irresistible book adaptation. He considered it likely that he’ll go right back to work in an environment he feels comfortable in. He already has sketched out what the followup film will be, but wouldn’t divulge it.

“I enjoy having input on every part of the process of making my movies, from release dates to marketing and what will appear on the poster,” Shyamalan said. “Even when I’m writing, I’m thinking about how to sell the movie and before I’d finished ‘Signs’ I was telling them that we should put crop circles on the poster. They listen and I trust them.”

Shyamalan wouldn’t say what will be on the poster of “The Woods,” but it might well be faces younger than the ones normally populating his thrillers. He wrote one role specifically for his “Signs” star Phoenix, whom he called “The leader of the pack from his generation of actors.” He wrote the lead with Dunst in mind, because, he said, “She has such chops and energy and is so much fun to watch.”

Casting Kutcher is the big surprise. Though he’s been in hits, he almost always plays a loveable goofball. “I had a gut feeling about using him in a serious role, much the way I did with Donnie Wahlberg in ‘The Sixth Sense,’ ” Shyamalan said. “There’s a period element to this one, and it’s a lot more romantic than my other films.”

Fiscal savvy

Shyamalan said that the film’s budget should be a bit less than “Signs.” Cook said the director’s fiscal savvy makes the relationship is a welcome relief.

“He’s extraordinarily responsible and his planning process is so thorough that you know he will not be running by the seat of his pants,” Cook said. “You could see 10 pages into his script how well thought out everything was. He is a studio executive’s dream.”

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