Last year, Viacom Pictures execs could only offer handshakes and promises to buyers at the American Film Market – along with an explanation of why they would pour $5 million into movies with leading-name actors, only to shun U.S. theatrical distribution.

This year, Viacom has two completed features and a lineup of new projects. Still, the execs will do more explaining that they’re not making tv movies – their pics have t&a and adult themes of features, but not the p&a costs that bankrupt many theatrical releases.

Viacom Pictures prexy/CEO Fred Schneier said his company will try to make six pics in 1991, eight in 1992 and 12 the following year. The first four new projects are: “Keeper Of The City,” based on the Gerald DiPego novel, about a detective pursuing a killer in Chicago; “Indecency,” a “Jagged Edge”-type thriller being done with Imagine Films; “The Fear Inside,” about an agoraphobic who takes in killer tenants; “The Crack In The Kremlin Wall,” a reverse of “Red Heat,” in which an American cop teams with a Soviet cop in Russia to track down an American drug dealer; and “Devlin,” another co-production with Imagine based on the Roderick Thorp novel.

The company’s unusual strategy has been validated by presales of “Fourth Story,” said Schneier. The mystery, starring Mark Harmon and Mimi Rogers, debuted on Showtime last month and has been sold in 18 foreign territories for theatrical rights. According to Schneier, the $5 million pic already has turned a profit.

Rights also have been sold for “Paris Trout,” starring Dennis Hopper, Barbara Hershey and Ed Harris, and “Payoff,” starring Keith Carradine, Kim Greist and Harry Dean Stanton.

Foreign market target

“Our aim is squarely at the foreign market,” said Schneier. “We make our money just the way any theatrical film would – a combination of foreign theatrical, video and tv sales. When you distribute a film theatrically, there are tremendous costs and competition with the majors, who’ve been doing it for 50 years. Most of these films don’t make money. We have none of that downside.”

Of course, some domestic releases make a lot of money, and Viacom has none of that upside opportunity. The Viacom-owned pay network Showtime fronts a percentage of negative costs – “not the majority,” said Arthur Kananack, head of international sales.

Still, Schneier and Kananack said they’re not out to make the next “Home Alone,” after watching other independents go out of business trying to do just that.

“There has been such a falloff from the independent distribution side that what we’re doing is only filling part of that vacuum,” said Schneier. “We have a realistic mode of how we can be accepted.

High middle plight

“Let’s say a foreign distributor has to fill an inventory need of 15 films a year. They get the top five from Carolco and others, and there are plenty of outlets for the low end. It’s the high middle they have a problem with. This venture is about finding that niche and serving it.”

Its modest domestic aspirations has enabled Viacom to develop production relationships with high-fliers like Imagine – which Schneier said wants the chance to season its future feature talent on lower budget projects.

While arguing they’re not producing tv movies – Schneier said union deals with the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild are feature contracts – Viacom execs also are quick to distinguish the venture from HBO, Fox TV and Turner, which also are trying to stretch tv movies by selling overseas rights.

Some HBO competish

Schneier said he competes with half of HBO’s slate, but he argued that much of its product isn’t geared to foreign. Though Turner is doing big-budget tv movies, and Fox is doing tv movies like “Omen 4″ with hopes of possessing foreign buyers, most are done with the limitations of appealing to advertisers and getting past standards and practices.

“When we make product, our only concern is whether this will work as a theatrical movie in the overseas marketplace,” Schneier said. “Everything else comes in behind that.”

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