THEY were fighting over a virus. In the far corner stood heavyweight producer Arnold Kopelson (Platoon, The Fugitive), backed by the might of Warner Brothers. He was facing off Twentieth Century Fox and less experienced filmmaker Linda Obst in a pitched battle to snatch the movie rights to Richard Preston's best-selling book, Crisis in the Hot Zone. Kopelson lost. But, like a virus, he never really went away: eventually, he made his own movie called Outbreak and he pulled out all the stops to win. Last year, Hollywood went to war over the Ebola virus; a 'hot' and virulent African plague which causes toxic meltdown in its victims within 24 to 36 hours of contact. Ebola has never actually killed anyone in America; but Preston's book detailed an incident which came lethally close to wiping out a nation and Hollywood's imagination was inflamed. As Kopelson admits, 'the story behind the scenes would make a better movie'. This 60-year-old Brooklyn-born producer may be a pussycat now, surrounded by bouquets of flowers in a suite at the Peninsula Hotel (it's his wife's birthday). But the steel flashes through. 'I must win,' says Kopelson. 'I must always win. I cannot be number two.' It all started in October 1992, although Kopelson says he had planned to make a virus movie way before then, after watching The Andromeda Strain and Panic in the Streets in his state-of-the-art screening room at home. But that was the date when Richard Preston's article first appeared in the New Yorker magazine: it told the terrifying true-life story of Ebola, a lethal virus carried by an African monkey to Western Virginia where, for a while, it threatened the future of mankind. More than 100 primates had to be destroyed in order to wipe out the threat. 'One of my staff gave me the article,' recalls Kopelson. 'I hadn't heard of the Ebola virus, but I later learned it was the deadliest virus known to mankind. 'I thought this was a very interesting article, as background, but it's not a movie - because a movie needs a beginning, middle and end; you have to have a protagonist, someone you root for, you put obstacles in his path, throw in a romance, and then he wins in the end. That's a formula that I love.' But Kopelson immediately picked up the phone and contacted Preston's lawyer: 'I want to buy the article,' he said. 'How much do you want?' The lawyer said he'd get back to Kopelson, but a month later, the producer's calls were going unreturned - and bear in mind that Kopelson knows all the tricks of the legal trade, because he used to be a lawyer himself. 'I said, screw it, I'm going to make my own movie,' he recalls. 'So I did.' The movie was called Outbreak, and since opening in Hong Kong this Easter it has grossed over HK$9 million, to add to a gross of US$54.5 million at home. It has been the number one movie, as Kopelson proudly points out, in every territory around the world. It is about a killer virus called 'Motaba', carried to America by a monkey, where it threatens a nation. And it is the only Hollywood 'virus' movie - now. But first, Kopelson had to see off the opposition. Three months after Kopelson made his first call, Preston's agent held a telephone auction for the rights to Crisis in the Hot Zone. Kopelson, who had already engaged two screenwriters for his project, put in a bid. 'Preston told me he was probably going to do a deal with 20th Century Fox because Robert Redford and Jodie Foster wanted to do a movie based on his book, the real-life story of what happened. So I said, forgive me, no disrespect intended, but I don't think that's a movie. I want to buy the article for background and I really want you to be a consultant on our movie and work with us.' But Preston went to the other camp. The author sold the rights to Fox and Linda Obst for US$100,000 upfront, against US$450,000 to be paid if the movie was actually made. Now two big-budget films (about US$60 million apiece), with almost exactly the same basic story, were racing towards production. Kopelson hooked Wolfgang Peterson to direct, with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland starring - opposite Ridley Scott directing Foster and Redford. 'I started to get very nervous,' says the producer. 'They were getting copies of our scripts, we were getting copies of theirs. It was like high stakes espionage going on. It was a real drama.' But Kopelson saw what he thought was a chink in the other side's armour. 'Jodie Foster and Robert Redford were committed to the other movie (called Crisis in the Hot Zone), subject to final script approval. And I gambled that they would eventually drop out. 'Jodie was pleased to have Redford on board, but she didn't like the fact they were diminishing her role in favour of him. So I figured it was going to fall apart. And to precipitate this, I convinced Warner Brothers to take out adverts in the trade press announcing the start of our production, even though we were weeks away from being ready. 'We used a picture of vicious-looking monkey with the tag line 'Try to remain calm' - because I wanted to appropriate the monkey and the virus before they did. And we put it in the international magazines because most of the money for Crisis in the Hot Zone was coming from Italy and they had already spent US$7 million.' Kopelson's next move was to shift an entire crew - over 700 people including Hoffman, Sutherland and Freeman, to location. There, a fully-paid film unit shot stock footage - because Kopelson was not actually ready to make Outbreak yet. The actors sat around. More scriptwriters went to work on the final draft. But the press reported that Outbreak had started, and it proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Crisis in the Hot Zone. 'They caved,' said Kopelson. 'What did I do? I shut down production for a few weeks. And relaxed.' Undoubtedly, Kopelson's colleagues will remember every twist in this dramatic scenario when they come to do business with him again. But his drive, his bare-faced nerve, comes down to carpets, he says. Yes, floor carpeting - or the lack of it. 'It's because I came from Brooklyn, a very poor background: four of us slept in one bedroom, linoleum on the floor. I never saw carpeting until I went to a Sweet Sixteen party with one of the girls from high school who had moved to Manhattan. Kopelson joined a law firm straight out of college; coincidentally, it specialised in representing banks which made loans to movie-makers. After 10 years, Kopelson became an expert in motion picture financing - so he decided to join the fray by establishing Inter-Ocean Sales in 1972 with his legal assistant and future wife, Anne Feinberg (his first wife, Joy, with whom he has three grown children, died of cancer in 1975). This company successfully sold Hollywood films overseas, until Kopelson felt it was time to make the movies himself. Having secured a loan of US$31 million from General Cinema Corporation, Kopelson began to demonstrate a flair for tapping the market, wherever it was. His first success was Porky in 1982. But Kopelson made his name when he picked up the script for Platoon in 1984 and decided to produce this film, which had been lying in the reject pile for 10 years. He took it to Hemdale, a small British studio, and raised the money through bank loans and foreign sales. It won him an Academy Award for Best Picture. A total of 16 people work in Kopelson's Los Angeles office, and he toils seven days a week - 'you have to be on top,' he explains. 'I work harder now than I ever did before in my life.' And Kopelson has won out on two major projects. The first is Seven, starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey - 'about a serial killer who is killing in the style of the seven deadly sins. More than that I'm not going to tell you. This film is so shocking I don't want anyone to know about it.' Presumably that's going to change by its release in September. And he's hooked the big fish - Arnold Schwarzenegger, who flirted with several producers before opting for his Eraser, about a super-agent with the FBI's Witness Protection Programme. Any rival Seven or Eraser producers will presumably have been scared off by the way Kopelson so swiftly dealt with the virus threat. 'I'm so lucky to do what I do, I can't tell you,' he says. One gets the feeling that he's made his own luck. Ask Richard Preston.