Is It a Deal? Maybe, Maybe Not


Has Leo gone "Psycho"?

That's what Hollywood wags are wondering in the wake of a series of contradictory announcements about Leonardo DiCaprio's commitment--or lack of it--to play a serial killer in the film version of Bret Easton Ellis' novel "American Psycho."

Earlier this month at the Cannes International Film Festival, Lions Gate Films announced with great fanfare that the 23-year-old heartthrob--and arguably the world's hottest movie star coming off "Titanic"--had agreed to take the lead in the controversial project.

Then came the backlash: Daily Variety reported that by turning the low-budget film into a big-ticket project, DiCaprio (who was offered $21 million) had effectively caused Lions Gate to ditch two people who were attached to the film: actor Christian Bale and director Mary Harron.

DiCaprio apparently wasn't pleased by the report. The next day his publicists suddenly denied that he had ever committed to the project in the first place--though they had been silent for the two weeks since Lions Gate's announcement.

"They jumped the gun," publicist Cindy Guagenti said of Lions Gate. "He was approached about the project, he's interested, but they have not negotiated the contract at all. He may do the project or he may do another project." Among films also under consideration for DiCaprio, she said: Spike Lee's Son of Sam project and Lasse Hallstrom's "Cider House Rules."

The announcement and the skinback jump-started the continuing debate about what it means to be "attached" to a movie project. The back-and-forth also said much about the mammoth power of A-list movie stars to transform the films with which they are connected. But mostly, the story shone a light on the workings of the industry's publicity machinery.

Publicizing which stars have committed to upcoming movie projects is an age-old tradition in Hollywood. More than mere bragging, these announcements affect production companies' ability to finance their films. If a big-name star with worldwide recognition is committed to a project, it is easier to pre-sell the foreign distribution rights, bringing in cash before the film is even made. Many such deals are made in Cannes, so there is incentive to trumpet your stars there.

Industry veterans stress, however, that without an iron-clad agreement, the strategy can backfire.

"I make it a practice never to announce a star until the deal is done--that is, if the agent agrees to the deal and the material terms are agreed upon," said Mike Medavoy, longtime studio chief and co-founder of Phoenix Pictures. "If you haven't agreed on material terms, then [the star] has got an out."

But what to do when word leaks out before you've completed the deal? According to sources, that is what happened with "American Psycho." (Because negotiations with DiCaprio are continuing, several key players refused to speak on the record for this story, referring inquiries to their publicists.)

Sources said the trade press, which routinely reports that actors are "nearing" decisions on projects before the deals are finalized, got wind of DiCaprio's increasing interest in the project. Eager for control, Lions Gate rushed to put out a release.

Though DiCaprio's team insists that he had not committed to the project, one source close to the negotiation says that the actor had indicated he was definitely in--but negotiations about financial and other terms were not complete. When the publicity pendulum suddenly swung against the actor, this source said, DiCaprio flinched.

Some see this as inevitable given the inexact nature of Hollywood deal-making, which typically begins with an oral agreement, followed by a deal memo and reams of paperwork outlining major points--but which rarely culminates in a long-form agreement signed by both sides.

Others see this as proof that leaks to the trade papers--often by sources who have a personal agenda--are out of control.

"It's gotten to the point where you can't even finish a deal before it's out there because everybody's racing to get their name in print," said one Los Angeles publicist, noting that commonly even the flimsiest stories about possible casting make a point of naming actors' agents, lawyers and managers. "So often, they are the source of the articles. Everybody talks."

Most observers, though, are less interested in the initial burst of publicity than in the awkward way DiCaprio attempted to distance himself from the fray. By equivocating--saying not that he would never commit to "American Psycho," only that he had not done so yet--he reduced his own spin doctors to making even more confusing clarifications.

Rick Yorn, DiCaprio's manager, said he had been misquoted in Lions Gate's original release, which had him saying, "Leo is extremely excited about this script and has decided to make it a priority." But the statement, he said, was not untrue.

"It was never a quote that I would ever make. At the same time, it's not wrong," Yorn told Daily Variety.

DiCaprio's publicist, Guagenti, was on the same page.

"It's not wrong, but it's not right," she said of the statement attributed to Yorn. She stressed, however, that DiCaprio was not to blame if anyone had been let go from the film. "It isn661921889. . . He didn't know about all those other people and their involvement."

That assertion, echoed by Lions Gate executives who have said they kept DiCaprio in the dark about director Harron's involvement, has prompted skepticism around town. And in this insular community, where perceptions are often as important as reality, such suspicions--even if they are unfounded--could be damaging to DiCaprio.

Harron wrote and directed the acclaimed low-budget film "I Shot Andy Warhol," about the radical feminist who tried to kill Warhol in 1968. Two years ago, Harron was approached by Chris and Roberta Hanley, two producers who had optioned the Ellis book, and Ed Pressman, another producer. The trio asked Harron to write and direct the film, and she said at the time that everyone involved felt it was "safer" to have a woman at the helm because Ellis' violent tale had raised the hackles of women's groups.

Harron and Guinevere Turner co-wrote the screenplay, making it more of a social satire of the 1980s and less a catalog of brutal killings. Harron's first choice for the lead role of the yuppie serial killer was Bale, who stars in Miramax's upcoming film "Velvet Goldmine" and with whom she had developed the character.

In late March, Lions Gate--an independent distribution and production company known for making gritty low-budget films like Vincent Gallo's recent "Buffalo 66"--entered the picture, agreeing to finance the film for under $10 million. Executives there agreed that Bale could potentially play the lead if some better-known actors were also cast, and together with Harron they began assembling a list. That process was still underway, however, when Lions Gate decided to offer the part to DiCaprio.

Bale, who had never inked a firm deal, was out. The budget grew to $40 million. And Lions Gate--despite an agreement that ensured Harron would be paid whether she directed the film or not--started looking for a more established director who had experience on bigger-budget pictures. A source close to the negotiations confirmed that DiCaprio will have some say in which director is hired.

One source said that Lions Gate executives pushed Harron aside because she had expressed reservations about working with DiCaprio. Harron told Daily Variety that was not a deal-breaker for her, though she acknowledged that she preferred Bale.

Meanwhile, DiCaprio's publicists explained why it took them two weeks to correct what they now say was Lions Gate's error.

"Since DiCaprio was interested in the project at the time, we felt the swirl of information would just die down after the release," Guagenti said. "But when other stories spun out of control that were completely inaccurate, we felt it would be better to comment once and for all."

DiCaprio, meanwhile, is gaining a reputation for being extremely choosy about his projects. In April, the Columbia/Miramax Films co-production of "All the Pretty Horses," an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, signed Matt Damon for the lead role after DiCaprio could not commit in a timely way.

The "American Psycho" flip-flop is only the latest example of a seemingly "attached" star backing away from a project--and nowhere near the most egregious.

In 1996, for example, John Travolta bolted from a Paris set five days before shooting was to begin on "The Double," a comedy that was to be directed by Roman Polanski. Mandalay Entertainment alleged in a subsequent lawsuit against Travolta that the actor breached an oral agreement to star in the film, which was never made. The suit was settled last year, with Travolta agreeing to act in a future film project for Sony Pictures Entertainment.

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