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Fox Planning Back-to-Back Independence Day Sequels, With or Without a Pricey Will Smith

After fifteen years of movie destruction, director Roland Emmerich and his old producing and screenwriting partner Dean Devlin are now putting the finishing touches on back-to-back sequel scripts to 1996's Independence Day, the $800 million worldwide hit that first taught them the importance of blowing major landmarks to hell. But whether Will Smith will be back to to welcome more aliens to Earth as Captain Stephen Hiller is still a question mark: Fox started working on structuring a deal to sign him back in early 2009, but the world's last bankable action star was seeking $50 million to shoot both ID2 and ID3 back-to-back, and Fox balked at so large a price tag in combination with Emmerich’s own hefty salary demands to direct. “The delay wasn’t about whether they both wanted to make the movie,” explains one insider, “It had more to do with ‘Whose dick is bigger?’" Nothing has been yet settled, because almost a year ago all concerned parties elected to retreat and focus instead on first getting the scripts right; they're expected to be delivered to Fox by early to mid-December of this year at the latest. Insiders tell us that Fox is willing to make the movies without Smith, if necessary, but he is what helps make the films a sure thing: Can the stuck-in-neutral movie business, let alone Fox, afford to lose him?

Little is known about the two ID sequels, other than that they will tell a single story, but will be engineered more in the Back to the Future Parts 2 and 3 sequential-but-not-imperative model than like the last two Harry Potters, which was essentially one movie split in two. As our insider puts it, “They’re intended to be fulfilling movies onto themselves — you could see each separately and enjoy them — but they tell one big story.” The fact that they will be shot back-to-back is especially appealing to Smith, who's sought to spend more time with his family in recent years.

Fox is wary of the kind of hard-line, high-priced negotiations that Smith engaged in with Sony in 2002 before committing to Men in Black II, a film that ended up being a payday in search of a movie. And clearly Men in Black III looms large in their minds; its pricey shoot dragged on after script problems quickly became production problems. But on the other hand, with box office stagnating, Hollywood desperately needs Smith, its only remaining take-it-to-the-bank action star, back making blockbusters again. (His last film was 2008's weepy Seven Pounds.)

Total box office has been essentially running in place, buoyed largely by 3-D ticket price increases rather than admissions, which have been down in recent years: In 2010, total attendance was down 5.36 percent from 2009. And year to date, box-office revenue is down about 4.4 percent compared with the same point last year. This period also corresponds with Smith's extended hiatus from moviemaking; the actor has been focusing more on his family life and assisting his kids' efforts to in break into the movie business. (Smith is developing a remake of Annie for his daughter, Willow, and producing a sequel to The Karate Kid for his son, Jaden.)

Usually, Smith shoots two movies a year. But in the last three years, he’s made only one film — Men in Black III — which won’t arrive in theaters until next year. As a result, Hollywood has been shorted about five Will Smith movies in the last three years. Run the numbers, and one quickly sees just how much box office Hollywood is missing out on: From 2005 to 2008, Will Smith starred in five films, grossing, in total, a little over $2 billion worldwide. This is not to say that a few four-quadrant Smith films can jump-start the entire industry, but him getting back in the game can only help things.

While Smith hasn't committed to the ID sequels, Fox can take comfort in the fact that Smith does not have a next picture completely locked. While it’s been announced that Smith is attached (with his son, Jaden) to star in the M. Night Shyamalan film One Thousand A.E. at Sony Pictures, studio insiders tell Vulture that the studio is going extra-slow on preproduction, marking time to avoid any repeats of its hellish MIB3 shoot and doing everything it can to lock down its story line.

“It’s complicated because of where and how [Smith] wants to shoot; he wants to be close to home, to the kids," explains our spy, adding, "There’s also been talks about him wanting to include Jada and maybe even Willow in the movie, too. [Sony] just managed to get through the mire that was Men in Black 3, and so they’re just trying to avoid anything remotely similar. They want the story straight, and want Will to sign off on it, totally, before they proceed.”

All this bodes well for Independence Day. After all, its other star, Bill Pullman, is clearly ready to go.

Photo: 20th Century Fox