WHEN it comes to developing film biographies, Hollywood has a rule – the more, the messier.
In the past, this has meant collisions involving duelling biographical projects about writer Truman Capote (Capote and Infamous, released in 2005 and 2006), actress Jean Harlow (two films called Harlow, both released in 1965), Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Escobar and Killing Pablo, both announced in 2007 but not yet finished), and even Alexander the Great (Oliver Stone's 2004 movie Alexander, and a Baz Luhrmann version still to see the light of day).
Now, the American movie industry is eyeing an epic pile-up of about a dozen producers and filmmakers over three separate projects featuring a somewhat unlikely new film hero: the renegade automotive entrepreneur, John Z DeLorean.
The chase involves seasoned players, including director Brett Ratner (X-Men 3), Robert Evans (producer of Chinatown and Marathon Man) and the writer James Toback (Tyson). Their DeLorean project is pitted against a competitor being quickly pulled together by another veteran, producer David Permut (Face/Off). Both are squared off against yet another project from a young producing team – Nick Spicer, Nate Bolotin, Aram Tertzakian and Tamir Ardon – who are working with Time Inc Studios, DeLorean's son Zachary, and young British filmmaker Alex Holmes. As it happens, Holmes was about to start what would have been a fourth separate DeLorean project when he instead signed with Time Inc.
Don't look for logic here. Studios have been running the other way from serious biopics since last year, when Frost/Nixon and Milk burned up cash in the Oscar contest without getting a matching return at the box office. Sony Pictures Entertainment further tarnished the genre in June by halting Moneyball, its film about the Oakland Athletics baseball team's general manager Billy Beane, on the eve of production, though Brad Pitt was set to star and Steven Soderbergh was directing.
Car industry movies do not have much of a track record, either. Tucker: The Man and His Dream, about car designer Preston Tucker, made only $20 million in ticket sales in 1988, and Flash of Genius, released in 2008 – in which Greg Kinnear played an engineer who invented the intermittent windshield wiper – stopped short at $4.4m.
"It's about people wanting something they can't have," suggests David Friendly, a film producer who is not in the DeLorean race, of the perennial biographical match-ups. As a journalist, Friendly wrote in 1986 about a face-off between Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures over competing projects about Dian Fossey, the slain gorilla expert. The studios ended up sharing Gorillas in the Mist.
Filmmakers have been chasing the DeLorean story at least since 1984. That year DeLorean – famous as a high-living executive who left General Motors and started making sporty stainless-steel cars named after himself, with doors that opened upward like wings – was acquitted after being tried on charges of selling cocaine to prop up his failing company.
"John was really reluctant to make an endorsement," (of any film project] says Ardon, 29, who bought a vintage DeLorean car and then became acquainted with the carmaker himself, who died in 2005 aged 80. Ardon spent years making a still-unfinished documentary about DeLorean before becoming involved with Spicer, Bolotin and Tertzakian, partners in XYZ Films.
With DeLorean's death, his life rights were no longer an issue for would-be filmmakers. And more recently, the troubles of America's car companies have kindled new interest in a man whose struggle against the system was inherently cinematic.
"What makes it prescient, his story, just look at GM and the auto companies, where they are today," says Permut, who got hooked on the DeLorean project while shooting Prayers for Bobby, a TV movie, and Youth in Revolt, for the big screen, in Michigan last year.
More precisely, Permut met one of Michigan's best-known citizens, Dr Jack Kevorkian, who introduced him to one of the state's best-known lawyers, Mayer Morganroth, who had represented DeLorean in many of his legal tangles.
Morganroth became an executive producer of Permut's project, which he says will be based in no small part on himself. "It's my life rights, regarding John, over ten and a half years," Morganroth says of his contribution to the planned film.
At the same time, Morganroth adds, he has warned Time Inc, XYZ Films, Ratner and the DeLorean estate to be careful of his position: he is still owed about $7m (4.2m) by the estate and would expect to collect the money from any rights it might sell, including those to an unpublished DeLorean memoir.
William Courtney, a lawyer who represents the DeLorean estate, says the estate has not become involved with any of the projects. But, he says, he has talked to various would-be moviemakers on behalf of DeLorean's last wife, Sally, who wants any film to reflect "the great things John has done".
In much the same spirit, Spicer says, Zachary DeLorean has become "an exclusive consultant" to his project, which he says is based on a wide range of sources, including Hillel Levin's book Grand Delusions: The Cosmic Career of John DeLorean, and articles in various Time Inc magazines over the years.
None of this is likely to mean much until a major star and either a studio or an independent financier become connected with one or another of the films. According to Morganroth, that is about to happen with the Permut project. Morganroth declined to identify the star, and Permut declined to discuss the matter. But persistent Hollywood table talk has said that George Clooney may become involved as the lead actor and perhaps the director, which would give Permut an edge. "There have been conversations, and that's all there have been," says Clooney's publicist, Stan Rosenfield. "There's no deal in place."
Meanwhile, Toback says he is close to finishing his own DeLorean script, based largely on another book, Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John Z DeLorean by Ivan Fallon and James Srodes. No stranger to filmic collisions, Toback recalls having been flogged by a nervous star, Warren Beatty, to finish his script for what became the 1991 film Bugsy, about Bugsy Siegel. At the time a pair of star writers, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, were hard at work on another Siegel script.
Competitors notwithstanding, Toback says he intends to deliver his version of the DeLorean story, which is being financed under an arrangement between Ratner and Reliance Big, the Indian media company that is now supporting DreamWorks. As for Ratner, he says he has not heard the talk about Clooney – Permut mentioned the possibility to him months ago at a premiere – and he is not worried.
"I'm not even thinking about the other projects," he says. His plan, he says, is to join Evans in pushing Paramount Pictures, where both are based, to start the film soon, with or without a major star.
"I just don't think there is a more opportune time to make this movie," Ratner says, echoing Permut. "Just because of what's going on with the auto companies, the economy and the world."