The Woods: After scaring up more than a billion dollar worldwide gross for Disney with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has made a deal for two more pics with the studio.

The first pic will be The Woods, a thriller to star Ashton Kutcher, Joaquin Phoenix and Kirsten Dunst. Scott Rudin and Sam Mercer will produce and shooting will begin in October in Philadelphia for a summer 2004 release.

Set in 1897, The Woods tells the story of a close-knit community with a mythical race of creatures residing in the woods around them.

The deal was made by Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson and Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. While Disney long had a reputation for being so hard on directors that they couldn't wait to make films elsewhere, the double feature deal with Shyamalan may be a sign that has changed.

Shyamalan wouldn't say what will be on the poster of The Woods, but it might well be faces younger than the ones normally populating his thrillers. He wrote one role specifically for his Signs star Phoenix, whom he called "The leader of the pack from his generation of actors." He wrote the lead with Dunst in mind, because, he said, "She has such chops and energy and is so much fun to watch."

Casting Kutcher is the big surprise. Though he's been in hits, he almost always plays a loveable goofball. "I had a gut feeling about using him in a serious role, much the way I did with Donnie Wahlberg in The Sixth Sense," Shyamalan said. "There's a period element to this one, and it's a lot more romantic than my other films."

Brian B.