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For Film Companies, a State of Flux


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November 24, 2007

For Film Companies, a State of Flux


LOS ANGELES, Nov. 23 — When Brad Pitt dropped out of the political thriller “State of Play” at the 11th hour on Wednesday, he did more than throw a wrench into the works of one of the highest-profile movie productions under way in a Hollywood already overheated by strike-related contingency planning. He might have helped tip the balance of power between actors and studios, at least temporarily, in the employers’ favor.

For weeks, lawyers and agents say, employers have had to pay a premium of as much as 10 to 15 percent over actors’ normal salaries to book them into the dozens of movies that are filming between now and June, when the Screen Actors Guild’s contract expires. But with talks set to resume on Monday between striking writers and the movie and television companies, the chance of a quick settlement has added a gust of uncertainty, which producers say could work to the advantage of studios that are trying to lock in their last few deals with actors.

Mr. Pitt’s departure from “State of Play,” for example, prompted Universal Pictures to begin talks with the actor Russell Crowe, whose next assignment, after all, is Ridley Scott’s “Nottingham,” a reimagining of the Robin Hood story from the sheriff’s point of view, also for Universal.

But if Mr. Crowe balks at picking up Mr. Pitt’s leftovers, Universal at least has the comfort of knowing he is not the only A-list actor available. Tom Hanks is suddenly free, his “Da Vinci Code” sequel, “Angels & Demons,” having been postponed by Sony Pictures because Akiva Goldsman’s script was not quite where the studio wanted it to be when the writers walked. (The movie’s scheduled release was pushed back from December 2008 to May 2009.)

And Johnny Depp was to have gone into production in February on Mira Nair’s “Shantaram” for Warner Brothers, playing a heroin addict who flees prison, poses as a doctor in the slums of Mumbai and winds up battling Russian criminals in Afghanistan. But that film was delayed indefinitely, Warner Brothers said, as efforts to scale back the movie’s cost required Eric Roth to rework his adaptation more than he had managed to do before the writers strike began. And a delay would mean the production would get caught in the Indian monsoon season.

Already, of course, some of the biggest movies on various studio drawing boards have been delayed or shelved. At Twentieth Century Fox the sci-fi director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow”) had been paired with the writing team behind the “National Treasure” movies, Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, to remake “Fantastic Voyage” as a major summer release for summer 2009. But the Wibberleys were unable to complete their draft of the script before the strike, a studio executive said.

The same happened to the Weinstein Company, which had hired Anthony Minghella to polish Michael Tolkin’s screen adaptation of the Broadway musical “Nine,” for Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) to direct. Mr. Minghella got the job only two days before the strike began, said Sarah Rothman, a Weinstein spokeswoman. Now the company hopes to begin production sometime in the second half of next year, but the musical had been penciled in as a Christmas 2008 release for the Weinsteins.

Of course, not every movie that has been delayed supposedly because of the writers’ strike necessarily was a casualty of the strike. “Pinkville,” the Oliver Stone project about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, was supposed to have begun filming in Thailand in early December, and United Artists announced last weekend that it had pulled the project because of problems with the script.

But while Bruce Willis, who had been set to star, did take issue with the script, people briefed on the project, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the powerful industry players involved, said that the reason a replacement was not quickly found was that United Artists, badly burned on Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” was loath to set in motion another costly war movie even as it awaits “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise as a World War II German colonel, next summer.

Dennis Rice, United Artists’ president of marketing and publicity, said there was “zero connection” between the decision on “Pinkville” and the box office results of “Lions for Lambs.” A spokesman for Mr. Willis declined to comment.

The crisis surrounding “State of Play,” meanwhile, seemed largely of Mr. Pitt’s making, to hear it from people connected to the production; his publicist could not be reached for comment on Friday. The movie, based on a hit six-hour BBC miniseries about a star politician and an ace reporter who are caught up in all sorts of intrigue, was adapted by Matthew Michael Carnahan (“The Kingdom,” “Lions for Lambs”) for Mr. Pitt to star in. To satisfy itself and then to try to allay Mr. Pitt’s concerns, Universal brought in a parade of A-list script doctors: Tony Gilroy of the “Bourne” series, Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland”) and, finally, Billy Ray (“Breach”).

Two people connected to the production, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to pay a price for antagonizing one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, said that the producers asked Mr. Pitt for a speedy answer about its latest version of the screenplay several days before the writers’ strike, but that he registered his dissatisfaction with the script only several hours after the strike had begun — and just 10 days before filming was to have started with Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman as Mr. Pitt’s co-stars. (This was not the first time Mr. Pitt bolted a production at the last minute; he did so on Darren Aronofsky’s film “The Fountain,” which was then reworked for Hugh Jackman to star in.) Another associate of Mr. Pitt, reached late on Friday, said that Mr. Pitt had rejected the last version of the script on Nov. 3, two days before the strike, and had tried to work out a compromise with the director, Kevin Macdonald, before pulling out.

The project was delayed while the studio tried to cajole Mr. Pitt into proceeding with some version of the script. Universal then released a statement saying, “We remain committed to this project and to the filmmakers, cast members, crew and others who are also involved in making the movie.” Now, with sets built and crews hired, the producers face a short window to replace Mr. Pitt or face other casting challenges: Ms. Mirren begins shooting “Love Ranch” in January, meaning that she will have to leave the cast of “State of Play” if it doesn’t start up by mid-December.


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