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Universal going ape for ‘Kong’

Jackson pic looking at Christmas 2005 release

Peter Jackson has committed to next direct “King Kong,” Universal’s remake of the 1933 classic.

He’ll begin work on the script as soon as he completes “The Return of the King,” the third installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. U execs are already monkeying around with a Christmas holiday 2005 release date.

Jackson has wanted to remake “King Kong” for nearly a decade, and he and partner Fran Walsh are well on the way considering they wrote several drafts of the film for Universal, the last in 1997. Jackson, Walsh and “Rings” co-writer Philippa Boyens will start rewriting as soon they complete post-production on the trilogy finale, which should be in late October.

The major surprise is that Jackson will take on such a logistically complex film on the heels of the exhausting “Rings” trilogy. In a recent Daily Variety interview, Walsh expressed a determination to make “King Kong,” but said she and Jackson would first tackle a smaller project like their arthouse hit “Heavenly Creatures.” The project they considered most likely was “As Nature Made Him.”

The change of heart is understandable, though. Jackson constructed Weta, Ltd., a state-of-the-art production and special effects studio in New Zealand to make “Rings.” By doing “King Kong” right away, he can provide employment for a staff of 300-500. Like the “Rings” trilogy, “King Kong” will be shot in New Zealand, and all of the post-production and special effects work will be done there. Production will begin mid-2004.

“No film has captivated my imagination more than King Kong,” Jackson said. “I’m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old. It has been my sustained dream to reinterpret this classic story for a new age.”

Jackson did not expect the ape epic to take this long; he was eager to make it six years ago. Studio brass didn’t want to rush to beat Disney’s “Mighty Joe Young” or Sony’s “Godzilla.” So the ape hung around while Jackson and Walsh moved on to simultaneously shoot three installments of “Lord of the Rings” for $270 million at New Line.

After “The Fellowship of the Rings” became a global smash that drew 13 Oscar nominations, including one for best picture, Jackson was courted by every studio in Hollywood. Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider was eager to bring Jackson and Walsh back for “King Kong.” That desire was only strengthened by “The Two Towers,” a best picture nominee that outgrossed the first film. “Towers” has generated a $335 million domestic gross and is approaching $900 million worldwide.

Jackson and Walsh decided “King Kong” would be their next film over the past week or so, and U brass set to work out a deal with Jackson’s ICM agent Ken Kamins and attorney Peter Nelson. The Jackson camp had far more dealmaking leverage than it did the first time the helmer tried to resuscitate the great ape. Now, the entire movie can be shot without leaving home in New Zealand, with facilities and a veteran creative team that even George Lucas might envy.

“We are confident that Peter and Fran’s execution of ‘King Kong’ will amaze moviegoers,” Snider said. “Anyone who has seen the first two installments of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ knows that Peter will bring Kong to life as a real character. His vision for the tragic tale of the misunderstood creature, with its poignant character development and technological wonder, will make ‘King Kong’ compulsory viewing for any real movie lover.”

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