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Anatomy of a Deal: How Sony’s Ghost Rider Came to Ride With Cage Again

In mid-July, Nicolas Cage finally signed on to make a new Ghost Rider at Sony’s Columbia Pictures, even as the studio is hedging its bets and making a deal to sell off the foreign distribution rights to the film. Why? They need each other, but they probably don’t love each other. The Ghost Rider sequel is, perhaps, the perfect confluence of a studio desperately needing to do something to retain a franchise, and a star urgently needing a payday to recharge his sagging fortunes and reliability: bank and bank-ability, if you will.

First, as we’d pointed out back in April, there are legal reasons this movie had to happen: If Columbia isn't in production on a Ghost Rider sequel by November 14, 2010, the franchise automatically reverts to Marvel — which means the comic-book company's new owner, Disney. And that’s not okay with Sony. Hence, an imminent deal with Hyde Park Entertainment, which would sell the right to distribute Ghost Rider abroad.

Second, Cage is coming off a flop in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and a particularly rough run with respect to his personal finances: Last year, news broke that the feds had placed a nearly $6.3 million tax lien on Cage’s real-estate holdings for taxes owed between 2002 and 2004, and an additional $6.7 million lien for his 2008 tax bill.

A month later, news broke that Disney landed him for Sorcerer’s Apprentice — and what’s more, insiders tell us he’d already been forced to make it for half his usual quote, only $10 million.

Insiders also tell us that Cage, needing to work to pay off his IRS debts and rebuild his fortunes, initially scoffed at Sony’s paltry $5 million offer to set his skull aflame once more. He was, insiders say, downright offended: After all, he was getting $7 million from his old friend Avi Lerner at the independent Millenium Films to star in Trespass, a thriller directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Cage and Nicole Kidman as a kidnapped couple.

Insiders tell us that, facing the loss of Ghost Rider to Disney, Sony blinked and agreed to pay Cage $7 million to return as Johnnie Blaze again.

Meanwhile, back at Millenium Films, Lerner was confused and getting even more so by the moment: Cage had been vacillating, first agreeing to play Kidman’s kidnapped husband, but then changing his mind and wanting to play the role of a kidnapper looking for an easy payday (paging Dr. Freud!). The role of the kidnapped husband was then offered to Liev Schreiber, and Trespass’s start date was pushed back to allow time for negotiations: Trespass would start shooting August 30, not August 16.

Then, late last week, Cage said he was out of Trespass altogether, going incommunicado and repairing to the Bahamas for some R&R. But even before Schreiber could accept, Cage’s reps said he was back in as the husband role, opposite Kidman.

It’s still not clear what motivated Cage, but one would think it might have something to do with Sony’s ticking clock on starting production on Ghost Rider. Movies usually take at least twelve weeks to shoot; all this backing-and-forthing means that Cage will have to act mighty fast on Trespass: Millenium has barely a month and a half to finish shooting before Cage will have to decamp to Romania to start production on the Ghost Rider sequel.

Assuming, of course, he doesn’t change his mind.

Photo: Columbia Pictures