petitEXCLUSIVE: In what is shaping up to be the first project from Tom Rothman’s TriStar Productions, the Sony-based film company is in the process of acquiring To Reach The Clouds, the working title of the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Robert Zemeckis will direct the film, and he has co-written the script with Christopher Browne from Petit’s memoirs.

zThis is a most ambitious first project for Rothman, because it carries on the spirit of experiential 3D films made under his reign at Fox including James Cameron’s Avatar and Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi. I’m told that Rothman got the idea to do this right when he was exiting the theater after seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and he began to think about projects with similar possibilities. He knew that Zemeckis and his ImageMovers partners Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey have long been interested in doing a movie on Petit. Rothman worked with Zemeckis on Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, so there is a long relationship there. Rothman’s lieutenant, David Beaubaire, ran point as an exec on the Zemeckis-directed Flight when he was at Paramount.

Now, the pieces have just begun falling into place — maybe falling isn’t the right word here — and Zemeckis likes Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the role, word of which just leaked out. There is no deal for Gordon-Levitt at this time, but it sounds like a career role here and the hope is to pull together the pieces to shoot late this spring or early summer, with Gordon-Levitt or another actor. Zemeckis, Starkey and Rapke produce, and Cherylanne Martin will be line producer and exec producer. ImageMovers’ Jackie Levine will also be involved in a producing capacity.

pThe actual tight rope walk, called the “artistic crime of the century”– doesn’t occur until the third act of the film, which is one part protagonist chasing a crazy impossible dream, and another part caper pic. After Cuaron’s accomplishment in Gravity, the prospect of seeing that famous tightrope walk orchestrated by Zemeckis in 3D seems to me like a recipe for spectacular film, particularly resonant in that it is framed around the iconic Twin Towers, shown in a simpler time in history. Much of the movie is about how Petit, guided by a mentor, managed with a small band of relatives and his girlfriend to carefully plan this, sneaking up to the top of the Towers at night. They hid until late evening when they strung a 450-pound cable from one building to the other. Petit then stepped off the South Tower for a 45-minute walk to the North Tower, using a custom-made 26-foot-long balancing pole. The caper party of the story plays out like Ocean’s Eleven. Matching that story with technological advances and there is an opportunity to create a film that, like Avatar, Life Of Pi and Gravity, uses 3D to get the audience immersed in a strong story. It is also the kind of creatively ambitious movie you’d like to see a Hollywood studio make, and one that has to be seen in a theater. I sure hope they pull this one together.