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Movie biz hoppin' with pop stars

Britney Spears, a former Mousketeer, is at the center of an aggressive drive into the movie business by a handful of young pop stars molded by the music industry and MTV.

Not since the 1960s, when singers like Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Johnny Cash crooned their way onto movie screens, have studios produced as many star vehicles to showcase the hip-shimmying musical talents of the day’s teen idols.

Their holy grail is “The Bodyguard,” starring Whitney Houston, which grossed $122 million and relaunched a pop song that became a perennial hit. The soundtrack is one of the best selling of all time.

That’s why there was much gyrating going on in the corridors of ICM Monday after its film agents signed Spears. The curvy 19-year-old now appears ready to make a full-out attempt at movie stardom she hopes will begin on Feb. 15, when Paramount and MTV Films release the Tamra Davis-directed “Crossroads,” a film financed by her record company.

Spears has hardly gone unnoticed by Hollywood, and has recently been up for several high-profile parts to help that transition.

She is set to play herself in a small scene opposite Mike Myers in “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” and she has been vigorously courted by Harvey Weinstein for a small but showy role in Miramax’s screen adaptation of the Bob Fosse musical “Chicago.” While Spears is currently concentrating on promoting her latest disc, an untitled screen vehicle is on the drawing board with writer James V. Hart (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”).

But as any MTV suit knows, not all recording stars play well in two dimensions. And though studios may view these projects as a means to capitalize on the booming soundtrack business, they can’t count on music revenues to hedge their bets if the films don’t perform.

Film and music licensing rights often are held by rival companies, and synergy between the two industries is tenuous at best. Realizing a profit can be tricky for the agencies, too – Endeavour formerly represented Spears for film – given the labyrinthian nature of packaging a crossover project.

Eminem, whose “Untitled Detroit Project” will be released by Universal next year, is signed to Interscope, a division of Universal Music Group. His film will have an Interscope soundtrack.

But “Crossroads” won’t have a soundtrack at all (three of the film’s songs appear on Spears’ new album, “Britney,” from Jive, a division of BMG).

The box office reports are full of pop vehicles that misfired. This fall saw the disappointing film outings of Mariah Carey in Fox’s “Glitter” and members of ‘N Sync in Miramax’s “On the Line.”

Nevertheless, Paramount has high hopes for “Crossroads” and Universal is predicting its Eminem film, an Imagine co-production directed by Curtis Hanson, will be a critical and commercial success.

Although “Bones,” the recent Snoop Dogg horror flick, and “The Wash,” with Dogg and Dr. Dre, recently opened to dismal results, “Exit Wounds” made a movie star out of DMX.

And Universal and Jersey Films hope the same will be true of Redman and Method Man, who star in “How High,” out next month.

These performers have created a cheap labor force for the Hollywood star system as it strains to meet the public’s ever widening demand for instant celebs.

“There are more movies than brand-name actors,” said Jersey co-chair Michael Shamberg. “That’s what these actors are, brands.”

Like their ’60s counterparts, they’re also manufactured entities. Even artists with “street cred,” such as Eminem and Snoop Dogg, have created a brand or persona through MTV and the hype machine of the music labels.

Many of the new crop of films, like the teen romps of a generation ago, are cheap and safe for a family audience. Pop star salaries are lower than A-list actors’, and the ‘N Sync, Britney and Mariah films reportedly each cost less than $10 million, an amount the studios are likely to earn back through TV, home video and airplane licensing fees, if not at the box office.

But the sort of exploitation filmmaking that generated huge revenues for Elvis’ producers from films such as “Blue Hawaii” and “Roustabout” no longer plays in theaters. Today’s fickle teens are quick to smell a cynical marketing ploy.

Steven Beer, an indie film veteran and attorney for Spears, O-Town (which was itself assembled over the course of the ABC reality series “Making the Band”) and Aaron Carter, said executives ignore the fundamentals of script and character at their peril.

“Too often agents, managers and artists think there are shortcuts to making great cinematic entertainment,” Beer said.

“Crossroads” producer Ann Carli says a movie that rests entirely on a pop star’s untested shoulders is a dicey proposition. Spears worked with an ensemble cast on “Crossroads,” and director Davis kept a writer on the set for emergency rewrites.

Excised from Spears’ script were improbable lines like, “What’s so great about being me?”

These days, pop music trends are arguably even more ephemeral than in the era of crossover stars like Elvis and Frank Sinatra. A year of production delays can doom a studio to release a star vehicle driven by a fading name.

Take “Glitter,” a film dreamed up as a synergistic product for Columbia Records and the motion picture group. After the studio’s interest in the project dimmed and it sold domestic distribution rights to Fox, Carey left the label to ink an $80 million deal with Virgin records, taking the “Glitter” soundtrack with her. Delayed by the singer’s emotional and physical breakdown last summer, the record, and the film, bombed.

At a time of soaring marketing costs, the most a studio can ask is not just that the pop star toplining a film will give it an opening-weekend push, but that the movie itself will have legs to carry it beyond the original buzz.

That’s Universal and Imagine’s expectation for their Eminem project. By attaching Oscar-nominated “Wonder Boys” director Hanson, they hoped to create something that defied formula and might have a life of its own outside the notoriety of Eminem’s name.

“It could have been designed exploitatively, but it was not executed that way,” said Universal Pictures co-chair Stacey Snider. “It came in like ‘Rebel Without a Cause.”‘

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