Overture under pressure

3:09 PM PST 01/22/2010 by Gregg Kilday, Matthew Belloni

Projects put on hold as Liberty conducts review

Overture, Liberty Media's 3-year-old film unit, is hitting the pause button.

Even as its new film "Jack Goes Boating" set sail at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, Overture sent out signals over the past week that it is temporarily putting several projects that had been in development on hold.

In the wake of a spotty track record at the boxoffice in 2009, Liberty/Starz is taking a close look at the company's operations. But while company insiders are describing it as forward-looking financial planning, agencies have been informed of a 90-day hold on development.

While no shutdown of Overture appears imminent, the film unit could undergo a transformation as a result of the current review.

Most immediately affected are films that were about to begin casting, such as the divorce comedy "Celeste and Jesse Forever," and others in development such as the crime thriller "Jar City," a remake of the 2006 film from Iceland, "Freaks of the Heartland" and "Speech and Debate."

While the company, headed by CEO Chris McGurk, is maintaining a business-as-usual stance, execs declined to comment on the current developments.

At the beginning of the month, former HBO chairman Chris Albrecht joined Liberty's Starz as president and CEO, overseeing the Starz channel as well as Overture and the company's other entertainment units. One of his priorities is turning the Starz channel into a real competitor to HBO.

That, in turn, has triggered a new wave of speculation about Overture. While Albrecht has initiated a review of the film unit, McGurk has been looking to raise independent financing that would enable Overture to continue its acquisition and production activities -- either as part of Starz or separately.

Overture has enjoyed a couple of high points in its brief history: "The Visitor," which it picked up at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007, earned a best actor nomination for its star Richard Jenkins, and the revenge tale "Law Abiding Citizen," a Film Department production that Overture distributed last year, became its top grosser, pulling in $73.2 million domestically. However, Overture did not make the film, which limits its earnings off the grosses.

But the distributor has yet to score a breakout hit like rival Summit's "Twilight" franchise.

Instead, Overture has released a string of smaller movies such as "Last Chance Harvey" and "Paper Heart" that stirred little excitement at the boxoffice. Its September release of Michael Moore's latest doc "Capitalism: A Love Story" only brought in $14.4 million -- a disappointing figure for a Moore doc -- and its November release of the George Clooney starrer "The Men Who Stare at Goats," stalled at just $32.3 million.

However, since the company had minimal investment in both "Citizen" and "Goats," it contends both movies will be profitable for it.

No changes have been made in the company's upcoming release schedule.

"The Crazies," a horror pic about a small town going mad, is slated for release on Feb. 26; Antoine Fuqua's cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest," which Overture picked up after last year's Sundance, goes out March 5; and "Let Me In," a remake of the Swedish vampire movie, "Let the Right One In," which is currently filming, is due out Oct. 1.

Overture also recently picked up distribution rights to Nu Image/Millennium's "Stone," starring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton.

Meanwhile, Overture's execs are in Park City, where their film "Jack," which marks Philip Seymour Hoffman's directorial debut, debuted Saturday night. And its acquisitions team is looking at movies for possible pickups.

Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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