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Thesps ‘Ride’ on Starz

Docu deals with gonzo journalist Thompson

John Malone’s Starz has brought together Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Bill Murray, John Cusack and Benicio Del Toro for a documentary dealing with the life and death of Hunter S. Thompson.

Called “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film,” the $500,000 nonfiction movie is nearing completion, and when writer-director Tom Thurman (“Sam Peckinpah’s West”) delivers the finished picture in August, Starz will decide whether to put it in theaters to qualify for an Academy Award nomination.

Stephan Shelanski , senior VP of programming and acquisitions for Starz, said, “If we want to release it theatrically, we’ll open it in a few film festivals so that acquisitions scouts from the distribution companies will see it.”

But Starz’s inclination is to “distribute the movie on a relatively large scale, not just in a couple of theaters,” said Shelanski, particularly with the celebrity names who appear in it, many of them for lengthy conversations, not just one-sentence sound bites. The exec producer is Starz’s Chris Black.

The Thompson docu is only one of a number of nonfiction films commissioned by Starz, highlighted by “The Volvo Ocean Race,” which consists of 32 half-hours that follow a group of actors appearing in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy who entered a boat in a round-the-world competition that goes on for months.

Also in production is “Going to Pieces: The Rise & Fall of the Slasher Film,” a compilation docu scheduled for October that will go into detail on why movies like “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” have touched a nerve among young moviegoers.

Shelanski said Starz is developing “The Face Is Familiar,” another compilation movie probing the appeal of successful character actors from the beginning of the sound film to the present, ranging from Frank McHugh and Allan Jennings from the ’30s to today’s William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The common denominator of these docus is that they’re all movie-releated. Even the Thompson work focuses on his relationship to the Hollywood community, including extensive excerpts from the two movies made about him: “Where the Buffalo Roam,” a biopic with Murray, and “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas,” starring Depp and Del Toro.

Black said the movie will probably begin with Thompson’s surreal funeral in Woody Creek, Colo., on Aug. 20, 2005, six months after he died, where Thurman’s cameras captured some of the strange goings-on.