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Lloyd Webber back on ‘Phantom’ prowl

Are musicals making a serious comeback? And is Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Sir Andrew has been trying for years to get his musicals made into movies. Now, nearly 15 years after selling his “Phantom of the Opera” rights to Warner Bros., Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group has bought them back to make the movie independently.

Lloyd Webber has already made overtures to director Joel Schumacher to helm, from a script they worked on together years ago. WB keeps first crack to be domestic distributor, and Odyssey will sell foreign turf for a film that should start in late 2003 or 2004. “Opera” has grossed $2.5 billion.

Schumacher has no deal, but has long wanted to make a musical. His “Phantom” quest was hindered by Lloyd Webber’s divorce with Sarah Brightman, who starred with Michael Crawford in the stage version and wanted to topline the pic.

The field is now clear to cast a male star and his young female ingenue. “Evita” star Antonio Banderas has long pined to wear the mask, but other rumored candidates include Hugh Jackman, though he’s got a Broadway commitment next fall.

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“I’ve got it back, and now seems to be the right time, with ‘Chicago,’ and ‘La Boheme’ doing well on Broadway,” said Lloyd Webber, who’ll exec produce.

News of the deal reignites other tuner-to-movie talk. A strong candidate for feature trreatment would seem to be “Rent,” which Miramax won in 1996 in a fevered bidding battle. But the movie stalled and a proposed TV version was nixed by the estate of creator Jonathan Larson.

And next up might be Tony-winner “Contact,” with choreographer-director Susan Stroman directing at Focus. “‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Chicago’ showed for the first time since ‘Grease’ that dance on film can be thrilling and popular,” said producer Laurence Mark.

STILL SCHUMACHER: Fox 2000 is moving to lock in a March 21 release for “Phone Booth,” the Schumacher-directed, Colin Farrell starrer about a press agent held in a phone booth by a sniper. Fox postponed its fall bow because it coincided with last year’s sniper spree in and around D.C. While Schumacher’s “Bad Company” suffered by being postponed after 9/11, “Phone Booth” should get a fair shake: awareness is high for a gritty little film shot in 10 days.

LONG HOURS SPUR LIT HARVEST: Many of the year’s best films came from books, and the makers of each could write a book about how hard it was and how long it took. Why bother? “This is an English playwright’s view, but the film industry has to try adapting these books, because the American novel happens to be going through a period of extraordinary brilliance and vitality” said David Hare, who adapted Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” and follows with the equally complex Jonathan Franzen novel “The Corrections.” “I felt like I was writing on the back of Michael Cunningham, who put in five years of thought into it. I put in another year or two thinking it through. That’s why films from books don’t insult the intelligence of an audience. Will I do another when I finish ‘The Corrections?'” I’d say no. It takes too much out of you. I’ve tried to get myself sacked from ‘The Corrections,’ but Scott Rudin refuses.”

DISHINGS: After completing “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” Christine Peters is ankling post as prexy for producer Robert Evans to form Stealth Productions. She’ll link with a studio shortly. Peters was integral in finding that book. Paramount opens it on Feb. 7.

(Matt Wolf contributed to this report.)

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