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Auds dance with ‘The Devil’

Fashion comedy the latest well-priced surprise hit from Fox 2000

Opening a chick flick without major male stars over the 4th of July weekend is not a move that’s expected to create fireworks.

Yet in a counter-programming coup, Fox did just that on June 30 with “The Devil Wears Prada.” The $35 million pic raked in $40 million in its first five days, well above the mid-20s result that tepid tracking had predicted.

Around two-thirds of the pic’s opening-weekend aud was female and over half was aged 25 and over, meaning “Prada” nabbed a substantial chunk of the older female aud that didn’t line up for “Superman.”

Strong word of mouth and reviews are beginning attract more men and younger women, giving the pic a good chance of crossing the $100 million mark when it finishes its domestic run.

The film has even branded a catch phrase amongst cubicle slaves: Meryl Streep’s blood-chillingly dismissive whisper, “That’s all.”

The film’s success is testament to the memorable perf by Streep, supported by engaging turns by Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci; a script that improved on the roman a clef upon which it was based; and a director versed in Jimmy Choos: “Sex and the City” helmer David Frankel.

But the success is also largely credited to the Elizabeth Gabler, prexy of Fox 2000, which released the pic. Gabler, who’s married to Lee Gabler, the head of CAA’s television division, is a Hollywood power player who has been making waves at Fox 2000 since she moved to the label six years ago from 20th Century Fox.

In her role as prexy, she has been responsible for pics such as the Diane Lane starrer “Unfaithful” and James Mangold’s acclaimed “Walk the Line,” a film no other studio wanted to greenlight. Last winter Fox 2000’s $18 million comedy “The Family Stone” grossed $91 million worldwide.

Like “Prada,” all those pics were made on modest budgets and fall outside the tentpole sensibility of the major studios, and the genre taste of most specialty divisions.

They were also championed doggedly by Gabler. In the case of “Walk the Line,” many Fox execs (like the rest of Hollywood) were dubious that a Johnny Cash biopic would win over auds. Yet Gabler pushed for the pic so aggressively that insiders say that Fox co-chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos consented to make the movie.

Gianopulos smiles that Gabler’s push for “Walk the Line” was “relentless more than aggressive” as she made a persuasive case for the pic. “When someone does feel that passionate and that confident in the outcome and has that kind of track record, you listen. There is a trust and confidence in all our senior executives or they wouldn’t be here.”

Fox 2000 is one of five separate production units on the Fox lot, along with main Fox, Animation, Searchlight and the newly launched Atomic label. It’s six if you count Regency, which is co-owned by Fox. To most outsiders that may sound like a recipe for infighting, but the divisions have a reputation for getting along.

Gianopulos says there’s no big secret for how Fox manages that feat. “It just kind of works out.” But he credits the long Fox tenure of execs like Gabler, Fox production prexy Hutch Parker and Searchlight and Atomic chief Peter Rice.

“We’ve all worked together for a long period of time,” he says. “It’s less structural and more personal. We all share a common desire for the company to succeed. So there’s a great deal of collaboration as well as interaction between the groups.”

While units like Atomic, Searchlight and Animation are defined by genre or audience demographics, Fox 2000 stands out for its lack of parameters.

Gianopulos says that is because the unit is mainly defined by the sensibility of execs like Gabler and her exec VP of production Carla Hacken.

That sensibility has also led Gabler to play a crucial role in Fox 2000’s “A Good Year,” starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott — negotiating the budget down to the low $30 million range (Crowe and Scott took pay cuts), and convincing the studio that the “Gladiator” team was appropriate for a quiet film based on Peter Mayle’s novel about a failed London banker who moves to Provence after he inherits a vineyard.

“A Good Year” is another film that Gabler says “everyone looked at, and said: Well? Is this a good decision for us?”

The answer was yes, because, she says, “they’re filmmakers we’ve worked with before and love, and it can be done beautifully and economically. We all came to an agreement and then we went out and tried to make the best movie we could.”

“Prada” required less deliberation but it took shrewd instinct to nab rights to former Vogue assistant’s Lauren Weisberger’s 100-page treatment. (The option price would have been substantially higher had the deal been clinched after the book was published in April 2003 and became a New York Times bestseller.) The treatment was discovered by producer Wendy Finerman, who had a first-look deal at Fox and immediately got Gabler onboard.

The script’s development went through a handful of writers over a few years, ultimately landing in the hands of Aline Brosh McKenna, who received sole screenplay credit. Despite the book’s tantalizing world of $800 stilettos and Paris runways, and its universal theme — a demanding boss — its arc was more anecdotal than narrative, making it difficult to translate to the big screen.

Furthermore, Weisberger’s Miranda is more of a one-note dragon lady than Streep’s complex, even sympathetic, power diva.

“We didn’t want to make her one-dimensional nasty,” says Finerman. “First and foremost, that’s not interesting, and secondly we wanted something for an actor to chomp on.”

The pic’s third act was a particular sticking point — it was felt that the book’s ending didn’t do justice to the main characters — causing Gabler, Frankel, Finerman and Hacken to hash out ideas with McKenna, who would then go off and work on the script.

According to Frankel, it was Gabler who came up with an ending that avoided having the heroine neatly make everything right.

“Elizabeth stepped in and said, ‘You’re wasting your time. Miranda would be 100 steps ahead of her. You don’t need this girl to save the day,’ ” Frankel says. “Elizabeth’s experience as a very successful, professional woman lent a lot to the shaping of the movie.”

Not everyone bought into the film’s take on inter-female relations. New York magazine critic David Edelstein rated the film’s drama a “size 2,” saying that “Prada” adhered to a “predictable ‘Princess Diaries’ goes to Conde Nast template.”

Whatever the critics’ takes, “Prada” is a throwback to good-clean-fun comedies that don’t rely on profanity or sex to draw laughs. The film is one of the rare pics today to wear its PG-13 — which itself seems a stretch — without shame.

For “Prada,” the right script was crucial to lure Streep, who was ultimately the key to getting the film made. The thesp signed on after McKenna rejiggered the screenplay and she met with Frankel, who had only directed one previous feature — and that was 10 years ago. (Hiring Frankel, the son of former New York Times exec editor Max Frankel, and who’d been championed by Finerman, was another gutsy move by Gabler.)

Even with an A-list star, however, there were challenges, such as how to make a film about the fashion world that wouldn’t alienate auds who don’t live in New York, Los Angeles or Miami.

“We didn’t want it to be perceived as an elite fashion movie, like ‘Unzipped,’ ” Gabler says. “We had to ask the question — do people care about designers and fashion? We had to make the situation more accessible, and in that way we had to prove that we could develop a script about a story, a character, that would transcend those challenges.”

Frankel puts it more simply: “The Holy Grail of this movie was to create an event movie for women.”

Mission, it seems, accomplished.

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