Starting on a funny note

'Money' is first test for Overture

NEW YORK -- Overture president Chris McGurk allows himself a moment of contemplation when asked about the spate of movies his company is about to release.

"When you think about it, a year ago there were four people in a small office in Century City and no movies," he said. "We were starting with great assets, but we didn't have much."

Cut to a year later, when the Liberty Media theatrical division has a diverse slate, about 70 employees and a plan to embrace the first half of 2008.

That plan begins Friday, when Overture unspools the Callie Khouri-directed "Mad Money," one of the more commercial movies on its slate. It will be the first test of what is a unique startup model that fuses John Malone's capital, the Liberty distribution platforms and the savvy of UA veterans McGurk and Danny Rosett.

If the past few months have been the quiet buildup period, the next few will be the noisy phase that will yield early verdicts on the Overture experiment. Between now and March, the company will release three movies representing different genres.

Those releases include more serious fare like Tom McCarthy's middle-age drama "The Visitor" and the Charlize Theron drama "Sleepwalking" as well as "Money," a comedy that stars Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes. (The Robert De Niro-Al Pacino detective actioner "Righteous Kill" and Dustin Hoffman romantic comedy "Last Chance Harvey" are among other releases this year.)

Overture could have started smaller with either "Visitor" or "Sleepwalking"; it acquired those movies first. But the company wanted to initially take a bigger shot, so it deferred those potential fall releases to throw its first big bet down with "Money."

"We actually had three movies we could have released in the fourth quarter, but we didn't feel like it was the right time," McGurk said.

Instead, the company went for a commercial debut release and decided to do so in January, "an opportunity," McGurk said, "following all the serious (fall) movies." McGurk and Rosett describe "Money" as a "hallmark" picture because it targets women but could have crossover appeal to men.

Overture plans on a wide range of titles, mainly in the sub-$30 million category, that range from commercial comedies and mainstream action to darker dramas and character pieces. It also could be getting to produce some of those movies soon; Rosett said that the group was "considering our options carefully" about a potential interim agreement with the WGA.

The label also wants to be known as a place that like its execs' former employer, UA, is hospitable to talent, and it already had become a home for some names as they move on to the next phase of their career.

With built-in home video and television output deals with Liberty corporate cousins Anchor Bay and Starz, respectively, as well as deals with Paramount International and Alliance Atlantis, Overture will send its movies into the market with a more sturdy financial cushion than some of its counterparts.

"The big difference is we have strategic investors, not an equity investors," McGurk said. "So we don't have a gun pointed to our head that we need to make money right now."

Some competitors question the distinction, saying that Malone's patience might not be greater than the average equity investor.

But a specialty exec said despite the enormous difficulties of starting a distribution label, Overture was better positioned than some of its peers.

Still, McGurk said he knows well the pitfalls of a startup. "I'm painfully aware that you're watching your competitors dropping movies on your date and watching the media arms of those corporations pumping up their movies and dumping on yours," he said.