August 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

BIG DEAL Arista Records has shown the greatest love of all for Whitney Houston, signing her to the biggest contract in the history of the music business. The deal is worth $100 million (including $25 million up front), eclipsing Mariah Carey‘s $80 million signing earlier this year with Virgin Records. (This at a time when Arista’s parent company, BMG Entertainment, faces a $150 million loss for the year and plans to lay off hundreds of employees.) And while Virgin will at least get four albums out of its deal with Carey, Arista will get — what? Houston already owes Arista six albums of new material and two compilations on her old contract. The $100 million appears to be just a reward to Houston for being ”the queen of Arista,” as label president Antonio ”L.A.” Reid calls her. ”She really has earned this deal,” he tells the Hollywood Reporter. ”But this wasn’t an exchange of money for guaranteed anything.”

Of course, it does guarantee that Houston won’t be leaving Arista anytime soon. There was much speculation that Houston and other big-selling Arista acts like Carlos Santana might leave the label following last year’s ouster of Arista founder Clive Davis, who was forced out after a clash with BMG over many issues, including his age. (Davis, 69, went on to found J Records and prove his ear is still good by shepherding new hitmaker Alicia Keys to the top of the charts. Read EW’s report on Davis’ current success. But no mass defection has occurred, and Reid insisted yesterday that there was never any question of Houston’s loyalty to the company where she has spent all 18 years of her career. ”We didn’t have to fight for it,” he told Variety. ”Whitney was a big supporter of the company from the get-go. There was never any conversation about her leaving.” Houston will head for the studio within the next few weeks to record a new album which Reid himself will produce.

REEL DEALS You can’t keep a good demon down. In the wake of last year’s successful rerelease of ”The Exorcist,” a prequel is set to shoot this winter that will tell the story of Father Merrin’s first brush with Satan, in post-World War II Africa. John Frankenheimer (”Reindeer Games,” ”The Manchurian Candidate”) will direct…. ”The Exorcist” isn’t the only undead horror franchise being revived. In the works is a remake of George Romero‘s ”Dawn of the Dead,” the 1978 sequel to ”Night of the Living Dead” in which zombies attack a mall and redefine the word ”consumers.” James Gunn, who scripted the upcoming Freddie Prinze Jr.Sarah Michelle Gellar version of ”Scooby-Doo,” is writing the screenplay. ”It combines my two all-time favorite things,” Gunn told Variety, ”flesh-eating zombies and shop ping”…. Oscar-nominated ”Chocolat” screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs has signed a multipicture deal with Miramax. First up is the suspense drama ”Conspiracy of Paper,” based on David Liss’ novel about a stock market scandal in 1720s London…. Ted Demme (”Blow,” ”Life”) will direct ”Nautica,” a thriller about a murder on a yacht. Each of the three characters involved tells the story, ”Rashomon”-style, from his or her own point of view…. Harold Becker (”Sea of Love,” ”Malice”), will direct ”The Lady Killer,” based on Japanese author Masako Togawa’s 1963 novel about a womanizer accused of being a serial killer. Becker recently shot ”Domestic Disturbance,” with John Travolta, Vince Vaughn, and Steve Buscemi…. If music video director Paul Hunter could handle the clashing egos of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink on the set of the ”Lady Marmalade” video, he shouldn’t have any trouble with a big-budget martial arts feature. He’s in talks to direct ”Bulletproof Monk,” the project that’s reuniting producer John Woo with his longtime star Chow Yun-Fat for a tale of a Tibetan cleric who mentors an inner-city kid.

TUBE TALK Social service advocates who worry that President George W. Bush will cancel popular government programs because of their cost may find karmic justice in Comedy Central’s treatment of ”That’s My Bush!” The cable channel is canceling the program, despite OK ratings, because of its prohibitive $700,000 per episode price tag. That’s twice the cost of ”South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s other Comedy Central show. Still, Comedy Central and Parker and Stone are going ahead with plans for a big screen ”Bush” feature, titled, ”George W. Bush and the Secret of the Glass Tiger,” in which the president would foil a Chinese invasion of the U.S. ”We want it to look like a John Woo action movie,” Stone tells Variety….

Michael Rapaport, the busy film character actor last heard as the voice of a thuggish raccoon in ”Dr. Dolittle 2,” is going back to high school. On Fox’s ”Boston Public” this fall, he’ll play a young, attractive, maverick teacher. (Aren’t they all?) He replaces Jason Catalano in the role, which was to last 4 episodes but has now been stretched to 13….

All those ailing CBS actors have miraculously recovered and are back at work. On Thursday, the supporting cast of ”Becker” ended their one-day sickout, which the show’s producers, Paramount TV Group, saw as an attempt to bargain for a raise. Paramount has refused to negotiate with the actors and warned them that they could be in breach of contract. Twentieth Century Fox Television had held a similar stand against the salary demands of ”Judging Amy”’s Tyne Daly, who’d cited a back injury as the reason she hasn’t been reporting to the set, but she returned Thursday when CBS overruled Fox and offered to renegotiate her wages if she extended her contract through the show’s seventh season (it’s entering its third this fall).

STABLE CONDITION Steven Spielberg doesn’t always get final cut. His plan to build a giant equestrian complex for horse-loving wife Kate Capshaw in residential Brentwood met with nays from the neighbors, who objected to Spielberg’s design for a five-story indoor riding ring with a retractable dome. But they’ve greenlighted his reined-in proposal for an outdoor riding area, with a modest four-or-five horse stable. Oh, and they didn’t much care for ”A.I.” either.

START ME UP Maybe the royalty checks slowed to a trickle, maybe he ran out of Brazilian models to date, or maybe the Rolling Stones‘ decision not to stage a costly 40th anniversary tour next year left him with a lot of time on his hands. So Mick Jagger will be releasing a solo album this fall, his first in eight years and his fourth overall. Guests on the record will include U2‘s Bono, Missy Elliott, Lenny Kravitz, and matchbox twenty‘s Rob Thomas. Hey, it worked for Carlos Santana.

HEALTH WATCH Ten days after checking himself into rehab for alcoholism, singer James Hetfield sent a brief message to Metallica fans thanking them for their moral support. ”It took a lot for me to admit to my problems,” Hetfield said in a post to the band’s fan club website. ”It’s a great feeling to have the support and comfort for me as a person from all the friends I’ve made out there. Thanks very much, it means a lot.” Metallica has postponed recording sessions for its first album of new material since 1997 until Hetfield gets out of rehab, though it’s not clear how much longer he’ll stay.

PASSING NOTES Popular sci-fi novelist Poul Anderson, 74, died Tuesday of prostate cancer at his home in Orinda, Calif., near San Francisco. The author of ”The Boat of a Million Years,” ”Tau Zero,” and about 100 other novels was a past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a winner of many Hugo and Nebula awards. His ”Genesis,” won the John W. Campbell award last month for best sci-fi novel of the year.

BOX OFFICE PREVIEW Hong Kong phooey, you say? Our analysts might not agree. They say ”Rush Hour 2” will conquer ”Planet of the Apes.” Read why in our weekly report.

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