Sacha Baron Cohen sells 'goat film' to Paramount after bidding war

He achieved fame as the white gangster-rapper Ali G, before wowing Hollywood as Kazakh TV presenter Borat and gay fashion journalist Brüno. Now Sacha Baron Cohen is preparing to unveil a fourth alter ego. No one is entirely sure of the new character's name yet, but his job description will almost certainly involve goats.

The British comedian had the movie industry scratching its head and wondering if the recession ever really happened yesterday after selling his next big creative project to Paramount, in a deal that will reportedly see him paid at least $20m (£13m). If the film performs well at the box office, his eventual salary could reach $80m (£52m).

Exact details of the deal are officially being kept under wraps, but a loose plot-premise of the forthcoming movie was doing the rounds of Hollywood last night after it emerged that Baron Cohen and his co-writers, three of the men behind the TV sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, spent last week touring LA's "big six" major studios, pitching it to executives.

Baron Cohen will apparently play dual roles, as both a goat herder and a deposed foreign dictator who finds himself lost in the United States. Instead of being in the "mocumentary" format of his previous movies, though, the as-yet-untitled film will be a traditional scripted comedy. One commentator described it as being in the spirit of the hit 1980s films Coming to America and Trading Places.

The big talking point, however, is the amount that Baron Cohen stands to be paid. He is rumoured to have signed a "20-20" deal, one of the legendary Hollywood contracts which see a major star paid $20m up front, plus 20 per cent of gross revenues from their film, which has a budget of around $65m (£42m).

If Paramount makes a profit, Cohen's share will rise even further, to 30 per cent of gross revenues. The comedian, who is also in talks to star in a remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, has been given a guarantee of creative control over his "goat herder" project, plus an assurance that the film will be made and released.

Those sorts of figures are big news because they come at a time when the film industry is supposed to be scaling back its gargantuan up-front payments to "A-List" stars. More and more stars have been forced to sign "back end" deals, in which they only make huge amounts of money if a film becomes a hit. Audiences have meanwhile grown tired of so-called "star vehicles" in favour of "concept" films that revolve around a big idea, such as Avatar.

Baron Cohen has not been immune to this trend. His 2006 hit Borat made $261m (£170m) at the global box office, but his attempt to repeat that trick last year, with Brüno, was a relative failure: despite an extensive marketing campaign it received mixed reviews, and made just $138m (£90m).

Against this backdrop, Baron Cohen's ability to sign such a big contract comes down to the old trick of good salesmanship. No fewer than four of the six studios he pitched the film to were interested in financing it, and according to the influential blog Deadline Hollywood Daily, which broke news of the deal, a bidding war broke out between Paramount and Sony.

The deadlock was broken when Paramount executive Brad Grey sent a goat, dressed in a Paramount t-shirt, to the offices of Baron Cohen's agent, WME. According to the blog, the firm's chief executive, Ari Emanuel, eventually "had the goat removed after it went to the toilet in the hallway".