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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Brett Ratner and 'Conan': Premature exhilaration?

November 12, 2008 |  1:55 pm

Conan2 If you hang around Hollywood long enough, you learn not to believe everything you read in the trades. Still, it was pretty exciting to see the news this week that the indefatigable producer Avi Lerner had wooed Brett Ratner into directing Lerner's upcoming remake of "Conan," the iconic 1982 film that helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger's long run as a Hollywood action hero. According to the original Hollywood Reporter headline, Ratner had committed to the project, though its latest version was a bit more circumspect, saying he was in "final negotiations" to do the film after working with the screenwriters, who were doing a quick polish to "incorporate" some of Ratner's ideas. The blogosphere wasn't quite so discerning, with some Web outlets simply saying that Ratner was "officially directing" the film.

One of Hollywood's most persuasive salesman, Lerner told me this morning that Ratner was the perfect director. "He has the passion and feeling for this project--he even wrote a story about Conan when he was 10 years old," Lerner explained. "He understands the character, he analyzed the script really well. He knows how to make this a really big movie. I like his childlike enthusiasm--he almost sees these movies as wonderful toys. What can I say, he's a nice, likable Jewish boy."

Lerner acknowledged that even though he sent out a press release announcing Ratner's involvement with the project, the deal wasn't actually done. "We still have a few obstacles," he said. "Brett is only committed if we agree on a budget, on how to do the special effects and exactly where we'd shoot the film." Lerner has a studio in Bulgaria, so he'd like to shoot most of the movie there, with some exterior work in China.

But is Ratner actually committed to doing the film? In two words: Not really. When I called him today, he sounded somewhat agitated, unhappy that news of his negotiations with Lerner had surfaced, especially since he is extremely close to getting a green light from Paramount to make "Beverly Hills Cop 4." "Let me make this very clear," he told me. "I am not doing 'Conan' now. This is totally premature. For now, 'Conan' is only a development deal. I have a deal at Paramount and I'm doing 'Beverly Hills Cop' first, no matter what. Avi shouldn't be telling you or anyone else in the press what I'm doing."

So what happened here? And how did Avi get the rights to "Conan" in the first place? Keep reading:

The timing of Lerner's press release is revealing, since it surfaced during the annual American Film Market here in Los Angeles, a colorful film-sales carnival where international producers like Lerner do much of their overall business. Lerner was probably eager to make a splash with the news that such a high-profile project was moving ahead with an A-list director attached. Lerner said as much in his press release, boasting "this is a coup for Millennium Films and proves that our choice of projects and material is attracting much higher-profile directors and actors."

It's true that landing the rights to "Conan" is a huge coup for Lerner. Originally produced by Dino De Laurentiis, the film had spent years in development at Warners, but never came to fruition. After Warners let the rights go, they ended up in the hands of Paradox Entertainment, a Swedish company that sold the rights to Lerner about 15 months ago. Lerner paid $2.5 million, despite stiff competition. "Everyone was after it, from New Line to Paramount to Universal," he says. "But we acted quicker. The studios always say they need a committee to discuss the decision and then run the numbers. With us, it's very simple. I talk to my partner, Danny Dimbort, and then I say yes."

Lerner recently made a deal with Lionsgate to be his partner and distribute the picture, which he says will start production next summer. Lionsgate also distributed the recent "Rambo" installment, which Lerner produced. Lerner knows that Paramount isn't happy about his announcing Ratner's involvement in the project. "They sent me a letter, saying how could I do such a thing," he told me. "Hey, it's a free world. It'll be Brett's decision. I'm not putting a gun to his head."

My gut feeling is that if "Beverly Hills Cop 4" comes together soon, Ratner will stay on board. "Conan" hasn't even been cast yet. With "BHC4," Ratner knows he gets to work with a real movie star--Eddie Murphy--and could have a big financial upside if he has a hit. If Lerner isn't willing to wait until Ratner is free again, he'll go hunting for another hot director.

When I asked Lerner who he was hoping to get to play Conan, he said, "To be honest, we're looking for a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger, someone we could sign to a three- or four-picture deal, because I see this as a real long-term franchise." Did he ever approach the governor about the part? "I saw Arnold in Las Vegas at the premiere of 'Rambo,' " Lerner says. "He said, 'Wait two years for me--I'll be coming back.' But I can't wait that long." Lerner says he offered Schwarzenegger $1 million just to do a one-day cameo in the picture.

"I told him we could even shoot the scene in Sacramento," Lerner recalls. "He was smiling, but he didn't say yes. Maybe he can't take the money while he's still governor. That's OK, if he can't take the money, I'd donate it to a charity or give it to a school that needs the money." Lerner laughs. "Don't worry--I'll approach him again. I don't give up that easily."

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