'Semi-Pro': Will Ferrell's Big Bomb

Will Ferrell's Big Bomb | Jacko's Last-Ditch Attempt | Hollywood Heavies Walk On Pellicano? | Soap Operas Within Soap Operas

Will Ferrell's Weekend Bomb

Who knew? Who could have predicted? Certainly not the box office soothsayers. They all called Will Ferrell’s new comedy “Semi-Pro" a lock for a $27 million average.

But according to studio estimates Sunday, "Semi-Pro" -- which opened in a very wide release of 3,100 theaters -- grossed only $15.3 million in its weekend debut.

This isn’t good news for anyone, least of all New Line Cinema’s now departing chiefs Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye. “Semi-Pro” was very well-marketed, starting with a popular Super Bowl commercial and following through with an Old Spice tie-in, all of which featured Ferrell.

The “Semi-Pro” failure will seem even more confusing considering that Ferrell is coming off back-to-back hits with “Talladega Nights” and “Blades of Glory.”

But the whopping lack of interest is a pretty good indicator that “Semi-Pro” had limited appeal. It also calls into question Ferrell’s career. For a while there it looked as though he’d grabbed Jim Carrey’s audience. But hot on his heels came Steve Carrell.

It seems as though the lifespan of a comedian — the career Steve Martin so carefully carved out — is shorter than ever.

And here’s just a weird P.S.: Isn’t it odd that Ferrell has never invited his “Saturday Night Live” acting partner, Cheri Oteri, to be in any of his films?

Jacko's Last-Ditch Attempt

Michael Jackson is making one last-ditch, 11th-hour attempt to save his Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos, Calif., from being sold at auction. Jackson has to find someone to come in with $24.5 million in cash and pay off the main lien holder, Fortress Investments, or watch his fabled property sell to strangers.

Believe it or not, there may be a person or institution crazy enough to do this, despite Jackson’s $350 million debt to HSBC and Barclays, as well as his poor history of keeping up mortgage payments for his parents’ home in Encino.

On Friday, a California escrow company sent out a memo to other, smaller lien holders on the property.

I have the memo. This is what it says:

“I have been asked to open escrow by the investor willing to loan Michael Jackson funds. My understanding [is that] this process has occurred a couple of times and I’m sorry for the inconvenience this may cause. Time is of the essence [since] the property goes to trustee sale March 11, 2008.”

The note is correct. I’ve told you that previously during the 90-day grace period, Jackson’s people have sent similar “Release of Lien” notices to the holders, only to find no lender at the other end. What’s interesting now is that according to the demand, both Neverland and Encino (known as “Hayvenhurst”) are cross collateralized.

So the countdown begins to next Tuesday, the 11th, and then the auction eight days later. Stay tuned.

Hollywood Heavies Walk On Pellicano?

Late on Friday, the government issued its trial memo in Hollywood’s Anthony Pellicano case, and it was pretty interesting.

Missing almost entirely from the government’s planned attack on Pellicano is the sexy stuff we were tantalized with, seemingly, for years.

Hollywood heavies may take a walk on Pellicano, as it turns out, at least for now.

Instead, the U.S. attorney, perhaps aware of the circus-like negative effect celebrities have on California cases (O.J., Jacko, Robert Blake, etc.), is concentrating on four non-stars to support their assertion of Pellicano’s wrongdoings in the U.S. vs. Anthony Pellicano and four other defendants.

The four key witnesses in this case (there will be a separate trial after this one, with defendant Terry Christensen, a famed Hollywood attorney, added) will be: Adam Sender, Sandra Will Carradine, Alec Gores and Susan Reddan Maguire. Their cases, the government feels, distill the case to its essence without distracting a jury by dragging in celebrities who would simply entertain and not enlighten.

So even though I shared with you an early list of potential witnesses last week, it’s unclear if 75 percent of them will be brought to the stand.

Barely mentioned in the memo are the Pellicano big fish: attorney Bert Fields, studio exec Brad Grey or any of the stars whose paths crossed Pellicano and Fields like Sylvester Stallone or Chris Rock.

Ricardo Cestero, the former Pellicano employee who went to law school so he could join Fields and work just on cases for Tom Cruise, is also not mentioned once.

The only truly juicy section of the 129-page memo is on page 96, where former super agent Michael Ovitz makes an appearance. There, the details get interesting. In 2002, the trial memo states, Ovitz paid Pellicano $25,000 to investigate sports promoter Arthur Bernier and sports agent James Casey. Ovitz was suing each of them.

The memo states:

“In addition to the specific matters for which PIA was retained, Pellicano and Ovitz discussed individuals within the entertainment community who were the source of bad press against Ovitz. During these conversations, Ovitz and Pellicano discussed Ovitz’s belief that New York Times writer Bernard Weinraub had been recycling negative stories about him and that, on occasion, he was assisted by Los Angeles Times writer Anita Busch.”

What followed, the government charges, was the illegal wiretapping of Busch’s phones and illegal investigations of her life. Pellicano’s interest in Busch is what eventually put him in prison for possession of illegal firearms.

Another name that comes up less than expected is that of Brad Grey, now the head of Paramount Pictures. His name appears just five times, all on page 88, and all in relation to a long-running lawsuit we’ve explored in this column between him and movie producer Bo Zenga over the 2000 film “Scary Movie.” Grey hired attorney Bert Fields to represent him, and Fields hired Pellicano.

From the memo: “During the course of the subsequent investigation, confidential information regarding multiple investigative targets was acquired through, among other means, protected law enforcement database inquiries and illegal wiretaps. For these services, Grey’s attorneys paid Pellicano $25,000, which cost was then passed on to Grey as part of the firm’s monthly bill for litigation costs. Again, Pellicano, at the outset of the investigation, tasked Arneson with obtaining criminal history information on the investigative targets.”

Look back to the middle of that paragraph. The government carefully does not identify “Grey’s attorneys.” But they are attorneys who work for — if not the man himself — Bert Fields. The omission is intentional.

And what of Bert Fields? His mentions in the trial memo are limited to two, both on page 91, as attorney for Adam Sender. Sender, a hedge fund manager, was suing Aaron Russo (now deceased, Bette Midler’s one-time infamous manager) over a movie company deal that didn’t pan out.

The trial memo states: “On Fields’ recommendation, Sender retained PIA in March of 2001. During the course of the subsequent investigation, confidential information regarding multiple investigative targets was acquired through, among other means, protected law enforcement database inquiries and illegal wiretaps. For these services, Sender paid PIA $500,000.”

Pellicano allegedly commenced the extensive illegal wiretapping of Russo and his family. The memo states: “… two PIA employees will testify about how this wiretap was used to serve legal process on Russo outside of the Giuseppe Franco Salon in Beverly Hills on April 21, 2001. After learning that Russo would be at this location from the wiretap, the employees traveled to the salon, where they subsequently chased Russo through several buildings before effecting service on him.”

There are two big questions that come out of this: Will the government tie Fields to the Pellicano investigation of the Russo’s? And will they want to?

More importantly, if the government’s case with just the four witnesses is very tight, will it force Pellicano to roll over on his famous friends in exchange for leniency?

More to come, and quite soon…

Soap Operas Within Soap Operas

The audience for daytime dramas is shrinking so fast, you’d think the producers of the shows would try to shore up their casts and fans, not kill them off.

But over at CBS’s “As the World Turns,” I’m told there’s been mass exodus of lead actors in the last few weeks. Several are scheduled to leave shortly. The most shocking of these would be the show’s nominal star, two-time Emmy-winner Martha Byrne, who’s 38 and has grown up on the show in real time.

A lot of this has to do with notorious skin flint show owners Procter & Gamble. They’re so cheap that this week they’re forcing the 70-year-old soap “Guiding Light” off its sets and out to do “cinema verite” in Peapak, N.J.! Sounds like the Steve Martin movie “Bowfinger” to me. There must be a more respectful way to conduct business on these shows.

Isn’t P&G the biggest corporation on the planet? They certainly have the moolah!