Leo’s firm gets ready for takeoff

Projects underway include 'Cat's Cradle,' Bob Dylan pic

Leonardo DiCaprio’s production shingle, Appian Way, will mark its second anniversary this summer by starting the propellers on its first production, “The Aviator” — Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes, starring DiCaprio.

“The Aviator” is co-financed by Warner Bros., Miramax and Graham King’s Initial Entertainment Group.

“Aviator” is one of several Appian projects, financed through the shingle’s first-look deal at IEG, moving toward start dates in 2003 and 2004.

Also in the hopper:

  • Director Todd Haynes’ next feature, about the life of Bob Dylan, tentatively titled “I’m not there: Suppositions on a film concerning Dylan.” Appian will produce the pic with Killer Films. The singer has licensed music rights to the production.

  • “Jesse James Hollywood,” produced with Tobey Maguire’s Maguire Entertainment, a bio of the real-life former teen impresario of a San Fernando Valley drug ring who is on the run from the FBI.

  • “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” starring Sean Penn. Senator Films, which is shopping rights to this pic in Cannes, has announced that Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente are also producing, and Alfonso Cuaron, Jorge Vergara, Arnaud Duteil and Alexander Payne are exec producing this pic, now in pre-production.

  • “Cat’s Cradle,” an adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel. Richard Kelly is writing and Darren Aronofsky is planning to direct.

  • “Gardener of Eden,” described as a “suburban ‘Taxi Driver.’ ” Adam Davis wrote the script, which is being shopped to directors.

The budgets of Appian projects run the gamut.

Some are mid-range enterprises designed to be produced quickly without studio money. Others are tentpole material, like “Aviator” and “Bombshell,” a Cold War saga that DiCaprio plans to topline and Lasse Hallstrom plans to direct for Universal.

Appian’s strategy is to commission material and talent, through its IEG deal, at rates competitive with studio financing, while providing a development haven absent the typical studio bureaucracy.

“It’s a lucrative deal,” says Cynthia Biamon, who runs Appian for DiCaprio. “We can go grab the material that studios would make and protect the auteur on the film.”

As an actor, DiCaprio has long gravitated toward director-driven material. He declined to comment for this story, but it’s clear that Appian Way serves — as do the production shingles of other young actors, like Maguire, Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore — as a mechanism for DiCaprio to exercise more control over the development of the movies he stars in.

Appian Way was launched in consultation with King during the production of “Gangs of New York,” which IEG co-financed, when DiCaprio was daily traversing the Appian Way en route from his Rome hotel to Cinecitta Studios.

As Appian starts production on its slate, IEG will likely consolidate its status as a top backer of high-caliber product.

IEG is shopping several pics here, including “Aviator,” Hallstrom’s “An Unfinished Life” and the Uma Thurman-Brendan Fraser “The Accidental Husband” (see story, page 5).

“To do an overhead deal with an actor is very dangerous,” King tells Daily Variety. “But Leo is very realistic. When we talk about budgets and how much we can recoup, he’s very keyed in.”

We don’t want to be in development hell,” King adds. “We want to make movies. They’re raring to go.”

Biamon also reps DiCaprio at the Firm with Rick Yorn. But Appian is not an arm of the Firm, which has its own feature division, Firm Films.

DiCaprio, Biamon and King will take producer credit on most Appian projects. Jane Garnett, an exec at Appian, oversees development with Biamon.

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