Nadir hit for Zenith staff

Zenith Prods., the film and TV production company owned jointly by Paramount and Carlton Communications, pink-slipped more than 25% of its staff earlier this week.

The sackings — seven people out of a work force of 26 — were forced by the tough climate for TV production in the U.K., with both the ITV web and the BBC slow to commission new shows.

Zenith, one of the U.K.’s most prominent indies, has produced nothing since ITV hit “Inspector Morse” ended its run last year.

Nonetheless, it has a development slate described by production chief Scott Meek as “probably the largest in this country” and several projects under consideration by broadcasters.

During the 1991 ITV license auction, the company’s prestigious name was much in demand among bidders.

Zenith signed development deals with three companies, all of which won licenses — Carlton TV, Tyne Tees TV and Anglia TV — but these have resulted in just one network production: kids series “Oasis” for Carlton.

The staff cuts have hit the publicity, music and production management departments but have left the company’s creative team intact.

Things are more active on the film front, with Zenith looking likely to shoot three features this year, two of them American.

“Deadly Advice,” a British black comedy starring Jonathan Pryce, Brenda Fricker and Jane Horrocks, will start production in May, directed by Mandie Fletcher.

Financing is coming from U.K. distrib Mayfair Entertainment, which will handle international sales.

“Amateur,” the latest film from American writer/director Hal Hartley, also looks set for this year, as does American “Valley of Lights” from rock vid director Meiert Avis.

The Zenith Group, which aside from Zenith Prods. includes Zenith North and gameshow specialist Action Time, is up for sale.

Earlier this year, Carlton and Paramount — which owned 51% and 49%, respectively — put 70% of their shares into a trust, retaining only 15% each, so that Zenith could continue to qualify as an “independent” producer under new U.K. ownership rules.

Dutch production group JE Entertainment is a leading candidate to buy Zenith, but it is interested primarily in the successful Action Time subsid rather than the company’s loss-making drama activities.

These may be sold to Zenith’s management, led by chief executive Charles Denton.

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