Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures has emerged as the front-runner to finance and distribute Oblivion, the Joseph Kosinski-directed sci-fi project that has Tom Cruise in early talks to star. The studio has entered into exclusive negotiations for a deal that would carry progress to production language, with a goal to begin shooting in October.  The deal hinges on Kosinski’s ability to bring in the film at around the $100 million mark. Cruise doesn’t have a deal at this point, but they are talking. Deadline told you last week that Universal was among three studios chasing the film. The film was scripted by William Monahan, with  Karl Gajdusek currently rewriting.

Oblivion recently shook loose from Disney, where Kosinski made his feature directorial debut on Tron: Legacy. That film just hit the $400 million worldwide gross mark for Disney, and the studio has a Tron sequel and other projects with Kosinski. But the studio let the filmmaker shop it because the post-apocalyptic Oblivion premise didn’t fit the studio’s family film mandate. Attempts to bring it in as a PG film was creatively strangling the project. It will be made as PG-13.

The project is based on a Radical Publishing graphic novel that came from an idea by Kosinski, and was published by Barry Levine’s imprint while Kosinski was preoccupied with Tron. The graphic novel was always viewed as a blueprint for a feature film, and Disney acquired in a heated auction last summer. Universal was among the studios chasing it last summer, along with Paramount and Fox and Chernin Entertainment. Oblivion is a futuristic science fiction love story that takes place in an apocalyptic future where most of the population lives in clouds above an earth surface that has been rendered for the most part uninhabitable. An earthbound soldier — stuck there repairing drones that patrol and blast a savage alien life form — encounters a beautiful woman who crashed in a craft, and they have an experience that forces him to question his world view. There are really only a handful of characters in the last-man-on-earth storyline, and so the feeling is that Cruise is a strong match.

If Universal closes, Oblivion takes a tent pole slot that the Guillermo del Toro-directed At the Mountains of Madness (which also had Cruise attached) fit into before the studio halted plans to make it this year. The studio found its R-rating insurmountable for a $150 million-budget film, even one shot in 3D and godfathered by James Cameron. Del Toro moved on to next direct the Legendary Pictures tent pole monster movie Pacific Rim. At the time, Del Toro told Deadline that he would not be contractually limited to a rating on the HP Lovecraft adaptation, which is the filmmaker’s dream project.

Cruise would star after he’s finished with the Adam Shankman-directed New Line musical Rock of Ages, which starts in June. Cruise plays the decadent rocker Stacee Jaxx, and he will sing the Bon Jovi tune Wanted Dead Or Alive and has a seduction scene with a journalist with whom he duets on Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is. Kosinski is repped by Verve and Anonymous Content and Cruise by CAA.

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