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LeFrak’s ‘Prison Stories’ Blurs Line Between Theatricals And TV Films

Gotham-based stage producer Francine LeFrak has made a successful segue into filmmaking, with her debut film being chosen to unspool at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LeFrak spent two years under a commission by HBO Showcase to research the subject of women (specifically mothers) serving time. The result, “Prison Stories: Women On The Inside,” debuts on HBO Jan. 26.

LeFrak hired playwrights to script the three separate stories and on the basis of this material was able to round up talent from motion pictures. Directors Joan Micklin Silver, Donna Deitch and Penelope Spheeris helmed individual segments, with Rae Dawn Chong, Lolita Davidovich, Rachel Ticotin, Annabella Sciorra and Talisa Soto starring.

“Prison Stories” typifies the blurring of the line between feature filmmaking and tv movies. Other recent examples are HBO Showcase’s three-parter “Women & Men: Stories Of Seduction” (which tapped film talent like Molly Ringwald, Ken Russell and Elizabeth McGovern) and Viacom’s production for its Showtime cable service, “Paris Trout,” starring Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey.

Even more dramatic is John Irvin’s British production “Robin Of Sherwood,” which was shot on a $10 million budget. The only project surviving out of three competitors with Morgan Creek’s $42 million “Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves,” “Sherwood” toplines Jason Connery and Uma Thurman. It will be a theatrical release all over the world except the U.S., where it will go directly to television.

Its budget is well over twice the norm for domestic telefilms, but the Warner Bros. pact to distribute “Thieves” has scared off all comers in the theatrical arena here. Extent of the competition involved is that Connery’s father, Sean Connery, is guest starring opposite Kevin Costner in the “Thieves” film.

Screening for inmates

Though shot on sets, “Prison Stories” was authentically researched by visits of cast and crew to the Bayview and Bedford Hills facilities in New York State, and the completed work will be screened for inmates at those prisons.

“Prison Stories” was co-funded by Britain’s Granada TV as part of an ongoing output pact with HBO Showcase that gives the British firm international sales rights.

“Less than half our funding on a project comes from HBO’s license fee,” notes HBO Showcase’s Colin Callender of the $2.5 million telefilm. “We often secure U.K. partners for the rest of the money and are increasingly looking to continental Europe for support,” he says, while conceding that HBO comes up with additional fees from its other divisions, such as HBO Video for homevid rights or HBO Enterprises for syndication.

Last year, HBO Showcase co-produced the Ron Silver-starrer about the Hollywood blacklist, “Fellow Traveler,” with the BBC and British Film Institute. Pic went on to a theatrical release. Callender, who produced Peter Greenaway’s feature “The Belly Of An Architect” before joining the HBO ranks, notes that “‘Fellow Traveler” was successfully released theatrically in the U.K. We received distributor overtures in the U.S. but they came too late in the day.”

Ironically, Warner Bros. commenced production on Irwin Winkler’s theatrical film about the blacklist in March 1990, the same month HBO cablecast “Fellow Traveler,” but Callender says there was no pressure on him within the Time Warner company to resist theatrical release of his picture on the same subject.

Most recently, HBO Showcase backed, via a prebuy arrangement, the theatrical film (overseas) “One Man’s War,” starring Anthony Hopkins. It was produced in Mexico by Britain’s TVS, Skreba Films and Film Four Intl.

LeFrak is juggling several tv and film projects in development. Theatricals perking include Alfred Uhry’s screenplay at Walt Disney Pictures from the comic strip “Blondie” and a biopic of Jim Croce for Nelson Entertainment. Latter will star Edward James Olmos as the late singer, with Julian Barry scripting and Floyd Mutrux co-producing.

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