McGurk to run new studio-distrib

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The movie business has another much-needed new buyer.

On Monday, Liberty Media Corp.'s Starz Llc. announced the launch of Overture Films, a film production and distribution company, which it is funding to the tune of $500 million. Liberty chairman John Malone has installed Starz Media senior adviser and former MGM vice chairman Chris McGurk, an 18-year industry veteran, as CEO, and his former United Artists president Danny Rosett as chief operating officer.

Overture, billing itself as a studio, plans to produce or acquire eight to 12 live-action features a year and distribute them, which will feed much-needed content to Malone's hungry premium television business, Starz Entertainment, as well as its Vongo Internet subscription movie download service.

Liberty and Starz are fully funding Overture's overhead as well as all negative and P&A costs on their films. "This was a chance to build something from the ground up for the 21st century," McGurk said. "For the last 18 years I've taken high-level jobs at studios where you spend a lot of time fixing things that are broken. We're offering one thing that is scarce today: soup-to-nuts quality domestic distribution. We don't need money. We need great movies."

With five-year deals in place for pay-TV at Starz and home video distribution at Anchor Bay Entertainment, McGurk and Rosett will now start building some strong theatrical marketing and distribution muscle for their new studio. Former MGM executives Peter Adee and Erik Lomis are likely candidates. McGurk said will not pull the trigger on any projects until the key marketing and distribution positions are filled.

McGurk and Rosett plan to staff Overture with 60-70 people and be ready to release movies by March or April, McGurk said. Initially, they will acquire about 50% of their pipeline and produce 50%. "There are a lot of opportunities to buy movies at the preproduction stage," Rosett said.

McGurk expects to move into a "filmmaker-friendly" low-rise Westside location soon and will open a New York outpost. Forging an alliance with a company with international sales capabilities, like Mandate Pictures, is another priority. "They have an economic model that works," Mandate CEO Joe Drake said. "I'm excited that there's another alternative out there."

McGurk is adopting an independent film model not unlike New Line Cinema, aiming to produce mainstream commercial films under the $30 million mark targeted at distinct marketing niches. "I believe that this economic model is favorable for setting up a business that can take creative risks," McGurk said. "We will forge the kind of alliances that made UA so strong years ago. We will create a haven for great filmmakers and let them make movies."

McGurk and Rosett see their business as complementary to such independent suppliers as Mandate Pictures, the Bob Yari Group and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which all are likely sources of product for their distribution company. "McGurk and (MGM CEO) Harry Sloan will be fighting to see who gets Sidney Kimmel and Bob Yari's movies," said one producer. McGurk and Rosett are discussing strategic alliances with filmmakers and independent producers. "Within the eight to 12 films we release each year will be dramas, socially minded projects, thrillers, comedies, horror films and urban projects," said Rosett.

Among the collaborative relationships that McGurk and Rossett are discussing are links with such MGM/UA veterans as producers Bob Teitel ("Barbershop"), Robert Simonds ("The Pink Panther"), David Ladd ("Hart's War"), Single Cell's Michael Stipe and Sandy Stern ("Saved!") and producer-director Irwin Winkler ("De-Lovely").

"Chris and Danny are terrific executives," Winkler said. "It will be interesting to see who they bring in. We've talked about doing a couple of projects when they are ready."

"We sure hope they're going to help us out," said Stern, who is painstakingly assembling financing for several projects. "They're the new kid on the block. It's another viable buyer right now."

Said Teitel, whose deal is currently at 20th Century Fox: "I'd love to work with them again. At MGM they let us put our vision out there and protected us."

McGurk was vice chairman and chief operating officer at MGM from 1999-2005. From 1994-2005, Rosett held several MGM posts, including president of United Artists, MGM's specialty film division. During McGurk and Rosett's tenure at MGM, the studio released such films as "Hotel Rwanda," "Legally Blonde," "Die Another Day," "Hannibal," "The Thomas Crown Affair" and the Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine."

McGurk will report to Starz Llc. chairman and CEO Robert B. Clasen. "Overture is the keystone for the new structure at Starz," Clasen said. "It complements the home video, television production, animated film, international sales and other units that were combined with the Starz premium channel business in August when Liberty Media purchased IDT Entertainment. Starz is now a fully integrated media company with the ability to produce any kind of programming and distribute that programming across all platforms."
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