Paramount Pictures announced Friday that it will finance and distribute an as-yet-unmade film about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, to be directed by Oliver Stone, no stranger to controversy, and starring Nicolas Cage.
If the movie does get made -- always a big if in this town -- it might be the first major-studio, high-dollar Hollywood production about 9/11 to find its way to the multiplex.
Paramount rushed out its announcement of the deal after the Hollywood trade paper Variety reported on it Friday, linking it to the terror attacks in London, which Variety said came "at a time when Hollywood seems ready -- finally -- to tell the tale of Sept. 11."
The Paramount movie will focus on the true story of the rescue of two Port Authority police officers trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center. "The film," the studio promised in its statement, "is a portrayal of how the human spirit rose above the tragic events of that day."
A number of smaller films, TV shows and documentaries -- Michael Moore's wildly successful "Fahrenheit 9/11" being the most notable -- have addressed the attacks on New York and the Pentagon specifically, and terrorism in general. The FX network television show "Rescue Me," starring Denis Leary and now in its second season, deals with a New York Fire Department crew struggling to overcome its losses that day. The subject of terrorists running amok informs the story line on the popular Fox series "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland. In June, NBC scrapped plans for a 9/11 miniseries, but ABC still has one in the works. On the big screen, Sigourney Weaver starred in the indie film "The Guys" in 2002, which dealt with a fire captain's eulogy for eight of his lost men.
But there has not been a major Hollywood release. Part of the reason is logistics -- it can take several years to produce a feature film. And part has been the reluctance of studio executives to jump into the emotions of that day.
"The thinking is that the movies have to be very responsible because we're all feeling destabilized, still," says Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm Theatrical, an independent film distributor based in New York. Urman says it makes sense that a major studio release would focus on the heroic actions of the police and fire departments. "It will likely not alarm or distress. It won't make people feel uncomfortable," because the point is to make an entertainment that makes money at the box office, "and does not send audiences screaming from the theaters."
There are rumors of dozens of other 9/11 films in development in Hollywood. Columbia Pictures bought the rights for the best-selling book "102 Minutes" by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, which re-creates the panic and bravery at the twin towers as office workers were trapped or fled and rescuers poured into the buildings to bring as many people as possible to safety. But a Columbia studio executive Friday said that the film has not been given the green light, no star or director is attached to the project, and they are only in the earliest stages of drafting screenplays.
The Paramount project doesn't yet have a co-star to pair with Cage, who will play Sgt. John McLoughlin, one of the two Port Authority officers. The studio released no timetable for shooting the film. Hollywood films still in development have a long tradition of stopping and starting production, as directors and actors come aboard or drop out of projects.
Stone, who was traveling from Europe to the United States and could not be reached for comment, was quoted in the Paramount press release emphasizing that the screenplay is "an exploration of heroism in our country -- but is international at the same time in its humanity."