A ''Silence of the Lambs'' sequel? -- Litigation and conflict of rights may keep a hold on the follow up to the Best Picture

Backstage at the March 30 Oscar ceremony, Best Actress Jodie Foster, Best Actor Anthony Hopkins, and Best Director Jonathan Demme all expressed their keen interest in continuing the saga of their audience- and award-winning The Silence of the Lambs. ”I want to make a sequel so bad,” admitted Demme. With five newly minted Oscars to its name, including the one for Best Picture, plus $130.7 million in domestic box office and an estimated $50 million in sales to video stores, Silence seemed unquestionably destined to spawn a follow-up. Instead, thanks to a growing morass of odd, unexpected entanglements, Lambs 2 is suddenly Lambs stew and might not come along for years.

The word within the publishing industry is that novelist Thomas Harris’ new book will once again pit FBI agent Clarice Starling against serial killer Hannibal Lecter in a devilish, sexually charged game of cat and mouse. Harris’ literary agent, Mort Janklow, won’t disclose any details, but he says the press-shy author will deliver his manuscript to his new publisher, Delacorte Press (which reportedly paid $5 to $7 million for Harris’ next two books), ”within 12 to 15 months.” That’s fine with Demme and Co. ”Right now everybody’s waiting for Tom’s book,” says Demme’s producer, Edward Saxon. ”We all respect Tom’s process a lot. All we know is that when the new book comes out, we’d love to be involved.”

Trouble is, financially beleaguered producer Dino De Laurentiis (King Kong, Blue Velvet) would love to be involved too. He contends that when he bought the movie rights to Harris’ Red Dragon, the first novel featuring Lecter (which De Laurentiis produced as the 1986 movie Manhunter), he also acquired the rights to all Lecter sequels. De Laurentiis says he gave permission to use Lecter in one movie only to Orion Pictures, which produced Lambs. Orion might be expected to launch its own bid for a sequel, if the bankrupt company survives; but, one of its few remaining executives admits, ”Orion doesn’t have a claim on very much right now.”

Muddying the picture even more is a breach of contract suit De Laurentiis has filed against Universal Pictures. In the suit, De Laurentiis alleges that while renegotiating the budget for his upcoming Army of Darkness, Universal attempted to extort a promise that it be allowed to join the producer in making any Lambs sequel. Universal’s attorney Bertram Fields says there was no extortion but they do have the promise: ”Anyone who knows Mr. De Laurentiis knows you cannot extort things from him. Universal contends that it has a contract with Mr. De Laurentiis that makes them equal partners in reference to The Silence of the Lambs sequel.”

Harris’ representatives refuse to discuss whether or not De Laurentiis’ claim to all Lecter movie rights is valid. ”If Thomas Harris is writing a sequel, he owns the movie rights to that book,” observes one movie-industry ! insider. ”But it’s so complicated that I don’t think you could find your way through it without a lawyer. I promise you it will end up in litigation forever.”

Forever is even longer than a life sentence. Hannibal Lecter couldn’t have devised a bigger feeding frenzy if he had cooked it up himself.