First Look president Vitale exiting

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NEW YORK -- Ruth Vitale is leaving her post as president of First Look Studios, effective April 30. Her departure marks the first earthquake at the indie studio since First Look Pictures CEO Henry Winterstern's abrupt departure March 5.

"(First Look founding investor) Prentice Capital has been nothing but wonderful," Vitale said in an interview Wednesday. She will oversee the April 13 wide release of the animated Cartoon Network series adaptation "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters" and consult on First Look theatrical releases, including "Paris je t'aime," through year's end.

Vitale said she has no other plans after her departure but described her resignation as a "mutual decision." First Look was close to finalizing a deal for what would have been this year's first South by Southwest Film Festival theatrical film acquisition, David Mackenzie's British drama "Hallam Foe," before it fell through.

"It saddens me, but moving on is the best for everyone in light of First Look's decision to conduct its theatrical business on a smaller scale," Vitale said. "I leave behind a strong team and take pride in the projects that I helped bring to First Look."

The move caught some at the company by surprise, even though there was uncertainty and a lack of clarity about the company's direction in the wake of Winterstern's departure.

A source said Vitale gathered key members of her staff in a meeting Tuesday to let them know that while the theatrical division would continue, she would not be running it.

Speculation was swirling about the departures of other executives hired by Winterstern and Vitale. No other exits could not be confirmed at press time.

First Look said: "The board of directors of First Look Studios accepted Vitale's resignation with regret and expressed appreciation for her contributions to the company, her professionalism and leadership."

Winterstern hired Vitale 16 months ago to run the domestic theatrical division of First Look after merging his Capital Entertainment Group with First Look Pictures in July 2005 to form the new company. Prentice Capital Management was a founding investor, and the company secured an $80 million, three-year credit line from Merrill Lynch in June.

Shortly after his departure, Winterstern confirmed that he'd had differences with his fellow board members over wanting more production than a focus on distribution and the company's video division.

"We've had these debates for two years," Winterstern said. "Some board members were more interested in just distribution, but I'm a big believer that you can't have one without the other, and you need a pipeline."

Despite earning good reviews, overspending in the face of poor boxoffice returns on such films as "The Dead Girl," "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and "Wassup Rockers" also was among the reasons for his departure. Winterstern claimed it was his intention to leave the company since he formed it.

Winterstern remains the largest individual shareholder in First Look Pictures. In his departure, he reacquired Capital and has plans to take on an advisory role and set up a FLS production deal.

The former CEO hired Vitale in December 2005 within weeks after her forced resignation as co-president of Paramount Pictures specialty division Paramount Classics, which was relaunched within a few months and rebranded as Paramount Vantage. Before that, she was president of New Line Cinema art house division Fine Line Features.

Her appointment to First Look was part of Winterstern's aggressive buildup of his new company. During his tenure, he purchased Blockbuster's production, acquisition and distribution arm DEJ Prods. for $25 million, video distributor Ventura Distribution for about $20 million and TV syndication packages from Pinnacle Entertainment, building his company up to 140 employees and recently relocating it to offices in Century City's new CAA building.
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