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Close to a Blockbuster Guarantee?

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

When historians look back on the American cinema in the latter part of the 20th century, they will no doubt devote sizable chapters to super-director Steven Spielberg, super-agent Michael Ovitz and superstar Tom Cruise and, perhaps, toss in a few footnotes about “The Blair Witch Project,” “Star Wars” and Adam Sandler.

But it could be argued that the tall, good-looking man in the black turtleneck seated across the table for an interview--all 6 feet, 9 inches of him--played an equally pivotal role in creating the Age of the Blockbuster.

His name, of course, is Michael Crichton, the Harvard Medical School graduate whose novel “Jurassic Park” formed the basis of Spielberg’s 1993 film about biogenetically engineered dinosaurs running amok in a theme park. The movie is one of the highest-grossing of all time.

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Beginning with “The Andromeda Strain” in 1969, Hollywood has feasted for years on Crichton’s best-selling novels and high-concept screenplays. Besides “Jurassic Park,” the list of Crichton-inspired films includes “Westworld,” “Terminal Man,” “Coma,” “The Great Train Robbery,” “Rising Sun,” “Disclosure,” “Congo,” “Twister,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Sphere” and “The 13th Warrior.”

In 1995, Time magazine put Crichton on its cover, calling him “The Hit Man.” The following year, Disney paid more than $10 million for the screen rights to his novel “Airframe.” And, proving he could excel in any medium, Crichton also created the NBC medical drama “ER"--a No. 1 hit for years.

The 57-year-old Chicago-born author is out with another best-selling novel called “Timeline,” about three Yale graduate students who travel back in time to rescue their professor, who is trapped in medieval France. The movie deal surrounding the book has the film industry buzzing.

Under the agreement hammered out in the fall by Paramount Pictures and Ovitz, Crichton’s longtime representative, Crichton and veteran director Richard Donner and Donner’s wife, producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, stand to earn a staggering windfall of more than 30% of the gross if the film becomes a blockbuster. They also will get a $1-million kill fee should the studio decide at any point not to go forward with the film.

Crichton and the Donners will get first-dollar gross--a percentage of the revenues before overhead and other fees are deducted--instead of cash compensation and will become partners with Paramount on the film when the studio receives its money back.

The project is on the fast track at Paramount Pictures, which won a bidding war with two other studios. Screenwriter Jeff Maguire (“In the Line of Fire”) is expected to deliver a first draft of the script this month, about the time Donner will be scouting locations in France. Filming could begin in May and, if all goes as planned, “Timeline” could be in theaters by Memorial Day of 2001.

The genesis of the deal goes back to “Airframe.” Although Crichton’s $10-million-plus advance from Disney generated considerable headlines at the time, the project never got off the ground. Disney took it out of development when Crichton was unable to get a script he liked, and Crichton recently returned the money to the studio.

After “Airframe,” however, Crichton and Ovitz decided to adopt a new strategy for “Timeline,” common for mega-star actors but not for writers. Crichton would forgo his $10-million upfront fee and take a percentage of the gross on the back end instead.

Donner, an action-oriented director whose credits include all four “Lethal Weapon” films as well as “Superman,” “Maverick” and “Ladyhawke,” also agreed to forgo his usual upfront fee of $7 million to $8 million.

The deal is considered a “win-win” situation for all parties concerned. The studio gains because it does not have to spend up to $20 million at the outset to acquire the rights, hire a director and line up producers. Instead, Paramount can use the money on the production itself.

“Michael is a very wealthy man who can afford to gamble on himself,” said one industry source.

It also creates an incentive for the filmmakers to keep the production costs down so they stand to make more money after the film is released. If the film is a solid hit, they stand to reap far greater returns than their normal fees (based on incentives that kick in when the film’s revenues reach certain levels).

Under the agreement, Crichton will also receive a producing credit, which will allow him to exercise greater creative control over the film.

“What is interesting,” Crichton noted, without commenting on the details of the deal, “is our conscious attempt to try to really keep the picture moving forward briskly at the studio.”

Both sides are convinced that the movie can be made for less than $60 million. Of course, a Crichton movie at that price might seem an oxymoron. After all, this is a man who, when asked what he was doing while writing “Jurassic Park,” would reply: “I’m writing the most expensive movie ever made.”

“That was [said as] a joke,” Crichton recently recalled, “because I thought, ‘Who can make this? This was in the late ‘80s. $150 million? Maybe. Two-year shooting script? Ridiculous. Out of the question.”

The Middle Ages and Time Travel

Critics may carp about Crichton’s big-concept books, but the author is known for the prodigious research he pours into them, whether it’s primatology (“Congo”), DNA replication (“Jurassic Park”), black holes (“Sphere”), international economics (“Rising Sun”) or sexual harassment in the workplace (“Disclosure”).

With “Timeline,” Crichton tackles time travel and the history of medieval Europe. He chose the Middle Ages, he noted, partly because the period is drawing renewed attention in academic circles and partly because of the “rise of Goth among kids.”

“Ralph Lauren is showing girls in chain mail kissing guys,” he observed. “What is that all about?”

As he conducted his research, however, Crichton said it became apparent the so-called Dark Ages portrayed in high school history are a misnomer.

Crichton argues that the period was actually a “dynamic” time “when woman’s role was more complicated and nuanced. It’s a time when technology is very important. It’s a time when social roles are in great flux, when people are moving up and down the social ladder constantly. It’s a status-climbing time. The old order is under attack.”

Although he has written a dozen novels under his own name, 10 others under various pseudonyms and five nonfiction books, and has either written or co-written eight screenplays, Crichton confesses that writing about Europe circa 1357 proved a daunting task.

“I couldn’t even figure out who the names of the kings were in the medieval period,” Crichton admitted with a look of exasperation. “While I was researching, I’d see King John. Is that a French king or an English king? What year is this? Is it King John or John II? And, who is John II? Is John II the same as John the Good? Or, is he the same as King Jean, J-E-A-N. Does that mean he’s French? I was lost.”

The book also grapples with time travel, specifically quantum technology, a theory first proposed by physicist Richard Feynman in 1981 and actively researched only in the ‘90s. Though the theory itself defies easy explanation (Crichton’s book is sprinkled with scientific jargon like “quantum foam”), the graduate students manage to travel, not through time but through space, to reach the year 1357, journeying to a universe that exists parallel to our own.

Crichton admits that this theory of time travel is only “my conjecture” and that it is speculative.

“There are some people who think it is possible, but you can’t go back earlier in creation, only go forward, and some people who say you can’t go forward, you can only go back,” he said.

As for his own future, Crichton, who is married to his fourth wife, Anne-Marie, also a writer, said that there is always a temptation to do other things but that he wants to keep writing.

“This is what I’ve noticed,” he said. “Usually, success will allow you to be elevated to either a position that you are not competent for or, at the very least, it is no longer what you like to do in the first place. So, you’ve been promoted out of the thing that you enjoy. For me, that would be to move full time into a supervisory role as a producer, and I don’t want to do that. I’ve resisted it for years because I just want to work on the things I really want to work on.”

Ovitz, who has known Crichton for 20 years, marvels at his friend’s wide-ranging interests, calling him “a real Renaissance man.”

“He wrote the definitive textbook on Jasper Johns’ paintings,” Ovitz said. “His art criticism is impeccable. He collects watches. He understands archeology. He is a doctor who has written treatises on AIDS and epidemics. He understands weather patterns and issues of astronomy. He probably has the broadest knowledge of anyone I have ever met and, plus, he is the most loyal and understated person you’d ever want to meet. If he wasn’t 9 feet tall, you wouldn’t know he existed.”


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