Par lets Fincher pic rights lapse

Studio talking new deal with comic writers of Eliot Ness tale 'Torso'

This is how tight industry purse strings have become: You can deliver a $100 million-plus critical success that secures a baker's dozen Oscar nominations, and your next green light is still no sure thing.

So it is with Oscar-nominated director David Fincher and "Torso," a project Paramount has had on its docket since January 2006 that has drawn interest from stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. But even with the success of Fincher's recent "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the studio allowed the rights option on "Torso's" underlying graphic novel to lapse, leaving the project in limbo.

The "Torso" graphic novel was written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Andreyko. It's a crime thriller that tells the true story of Treasury Department agent Eliot Ness' time after his Al Capone days.

The comic was first optioned by "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane, who had Bendis and Andreyko pen their own script at Dimension. Later, producer Don Murphy came on board and went to producer Bill Mechanic and his Pandemonium shingle, which brought in Fincher, who made "Fight Club" when Mechanic was head of Fox. In early 2006, they took the package to Paramount, which hired Ehren Kruger to adapt it.

Last month, Paramount's ability to extend the rights option as part of the original deal expired, which would have then required the studio to purchase the rights outright to retain them — a price the studio apparently was unwilling to shell out. While the studio still owns Kruger's screenplay, it is in discussions potentially to strike a new option agreement with the comic's writers, to whom the rights reverted. (Fincher and the producers remain attached.)

Given the Ness story line's basis in reality, one could argue that a public-domain version of it could be developed using similar material. But in the age of the industry-shaking legal tussle between Warner Bros. and Fox over "Watchmen," it's unlikely that Paramount would take that type of risk.

One source indicated that Fincher has been keen on making the project and expressed confusion as to why Paramount would dither. But given the projects and personnel that the belt-tightening Brad Grey-run studio shed last year, it's not surprising that it would balk at committing to another big-budget production at year's end.

Fincher's reputation as a perfection-driven director often has ruffled studio feathers, and he's not one to roll cameras for eight-digit budgets. ("Button" rang up a $150 million-$175 million tab.)

Just the same, Paramount is unlikely to let the project slip through its fingers. In addition to "Button," it also made "Zodiac" with Fincher. But if it did, any number of studios likely would jump at the chance to get in the Fincher business.

"It's a weird and odd situation," Bendis said. "We heard it was greenlit one day, then the next we heard it wasn't. Hopefully, it'll have a happy ending." (partialdiff)