EXTRA: ‘Hannibal’ to Feast Again, Studio Says

“Hannibal” can be taken off the endangered film project list, at least for the time being.

Universal has confirmed its intentions to stick by the “Silence of the Lambs” sequel, laying to rest reports on Entertainment Weekly Online last week that the studio was considering canning the project after Jodie Foster bailed out to instead direct Claire Danes in “Flora Plum.”

“As far as we know, [this project] is alive,” a Universal spokeswoman says. “[Star Anthony] Hopkins and [director Ridley] Scott are both very committed. We like what we’ve got, and the revised script is really, really good.”

What’s more, the project apparently will forge ahead with or without Foster.

“We’ve decided that we’re not going to reapproach Jodie as the media has been reporting. We are trying to come up with the right lead to replace Jodie and are putting together a list [of candidates],” the same studio rep says.

The exact names on the titular list are under wraps, but Variety reported Monday that the studio has narrowed the leading lady race to Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth“) and another unidentified actress. Right now, the smart money’s on Blanchett.

But the studio may be well served to see what the paying public has to say. Close observers — in the form of die-hard “Hannibal” fans — have taken to a net-based poll on Silence of the Lambs — The Sequel Site (http://hannibal.simplenet.com/lecter/) to give their two cents on who they think should play Clarice Starling (or a character facsimile). And there, Blanchett doesn’t figure in the mix at all.

The modest poll (with less than 200 votes cast through Monday) shows “X-Filer” Gillian Anderson far ahead of the pack, with a comfortable 52% lead over fellow Clarice hopefuls Ashley Judd (10%), Helen Hunt (10%) and Holly Hunter (13%).

Though Anderson may be the enthusiastic pick of cyber fans, the fact remains that a Foster-less “Lambs” may be a tough sell at the box office. One rival studio exec told EW Online that “Jodie is synonymous with the part” — speaking to the belief that Foster is simply indispensable to any “Lambs” franchise. (The actress, after all, won five major film awards — including the Oscar — for her turn as Clarice in the 1991 film.)

Hollywood has gambled before — and lost — when trying to make sequels minus key players from the original hits. Remember “Speed,” the 1994 Keanu Reeves action blockbuster with Sandra Bullock? Probably. Then how about “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” the 1997 sequel with Sandra Bullock and … Jason Patric? Probably not. The Keanu-less flick grossed 60% less than the original. And let’s not even get started on “The Sting 2,” with Mac Davis (huh?) and Jackie Gleason (what?) trying to make audiences forget about, um, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

With “Hannibal,” Universal apparently is hoping that the franchise’s other name-brand star, Anthony Hopkins, coupled with a worthy lead actress replacement, will eclipse the loss of Foster.

Foster, however, is not the first major player to drop out of the sequel. “LambsJonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally both rejected the follow-up project. Even Hopkins expressed doubts about returning as baddie Hannibal Lecter after reading the first draft of the script.

The ultimate question remains whether audiences will cough up cash to go see a “Lambs” sequel without the FosterHopkins pairing?

“I think Hopkins‘ involvement raises the quality of the film considerably,” says Stuart Galbraith IV, a Hollywood-based film historian and author. “And if Cate Blanchett does replace Foster, it’s not going to ruin the film. [Blanchett] is a very respected actress, and she’s obviously been in the industry as long as Foster has. And in terms of pedigree, [Blanchett] would probably bring as much to the film as Foster did.”

Another Hollywood analyst agrees a Foster-free “Hannibal” is not necessarily a wash.

“At least one of the leads needs to be there to ensure the success of the sequel. And moviegoers are thrilled that Hopkins is reprising his role,” says Paul Dergarabedian of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. “Hopkins‘s return should be enough to get the audience back in the theater.”

But Dergarabedian warns that audiences might not stomach as easily the project if the Foster replacement plays Clarice, as opposed to a different creation.

“If [Universal] creates a new character, the sequel would work,” Dergarabedian says. “But it’s harder to say [that] if they try to recast the part with a different actress.”

No worries there. Works apparently are under way over at Universal to have the script reworked to account for the introduction of a new character (and to delete Clarice), Variety says. Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List“), who rewrote the first draft of “Hannibal,” is said to be on the case again.

Keep your fingers crossed, “Hannibal” fans. Despite a seemingly endless string of stop-starts, the film is scheduled to go in front of the camera this spring. We think.

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