Lion's on hunt for meaty TV

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MGM is shifting gears in the TV biz, greenlighting a number of fictional series in hopes of jump-starting mainstream small-screen production and feeding its distribution pipeline with fresh content.

In the next few weeks, the team led by Jim Packer and Gary Marenzi will be talking up adaptations of two projects based on MGM-owned catalog titles: the Robert De Niro crime thriller "Ronin," which will be reconfigured as a series and probably shot in Europe, and the Meryl Streep-Jeremy Irons romance "The French Lieutenant's Woman," which will be expanded into a miniseries.

Both movie-to-series projects will be co-produced with the BBC in London.

In addition, MGM's TV team is in discussions with the Los Angeles-based indie production outfit Level One — the company behind Paramount's 2009 "Star Trek" film — and its creative head Gerard Boccaccio about developing several series. And in August the Lion optioned the British graphic novel by Howard Webster, "The Many Worlds of Jonas Moore," which centers on a black action hero in Britain.

These deals and relationships follow an agreement to produce a Walter Hill-directed Irish mob series set in Boston for Spike TV.

"What we're trying to do is match great creative with global potential," MGM co-presidents of worldwide TV Marenzi and Packer said Tuesday at the Mipcom TV programming trade show.

They also pointed to the extraordinary need for well-made series content from foreign as well as domestic channels.

During the past year, while the spotlight has fixed on the "Valkyrie"-vexed film operations at MGM and sister company United Artists, the two TV execs quietly have ramped up staff to 125 and reopened MGM offices in key foreign territories. Analysts who follow the company reckon the domestic and international TV sales business accounts for "almost the lion's share," about 40%, of the company's total revenue.

"Ronin" is being produced in the U.K. with Steven Garrett and Jane Featherstone's Kudos Prods., and MGM exec vp Chris Ottinger said the partners are looking for an American lead. "Jean Reno would be great, too," he added, referring to the iconic French actor who co-starred alongside De Niro in the 1998 movie, which grossed about $93 million worldwide.

As for "French Lieutenant's Woman," Ottinger said it would probably be four hours and use some of the material from the John Fowles novel that didn't make it into the 1981 movie. He'll be liaising with Jessica Pope, the BBC Drama Prods. point person on the project, next week in London.

"This really is Phase 2 for us," said Marenzi, who rejoined MGM 18 months ago and is, along with Packer, charged with re-energizing what had been a fairly dormant area of the Hollywood studio. They said that part of their plan is to let producers keep an ownership stake (they wouldn't say how much) in the projects that get greenlighted.

"We're seizing on a lot of opportunities and calls from drama producers," said Marenzi, noting that many talents stateside have been sidelined as primetime slots are assigned to reality fare or to three or four top producers with multiple series.

MGM fields a half-dozen TV properties on broadcast and cable nets in the U.S., including "American Gladiators" on NBC, the "Stargate" franchise on Sci Fi Channel and "Space Balls" on G4.

Asked about the global economic crunch and MGM's interminably discussed financial health, Marenzi and Packer said they are focused and determined: "The planets are aligned, our phones are ringing. We're not distracted." (partialdiff)
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