Pop icon Michael Jackson and Hanna-Barbera chairman David Kirschner are in discussions with 20th Century Fox to start a film production company specializing in high-quality, live-action and animated fantasy films, sources said.

Fox declined to comment, but the studio reportedly is willing to provide $ 9 million to fund the new production company under an exclusive three-year deal.

The entire agreement is said to hinge on whether Hanna-Barbera parent Turner Broadcasting System will let Kirschner out of his contract, which has 20 months remaining. Kirschner is considered to be the driving force behind the new partnership.

Sources said plans call for Jackson to enter into a first-look movie arrangement with the Kirschner-run company at Fox in 10 months, following the expiration of his first-look Nation Films deal with Columbia Pictures.

Until then, Kirschner and Fox would be in a second position on projects from Nation Films, which is part of Jackson’s sweeping pact with Sony USA. It covers such areas as music, publishing, video games, computer software and television.

To date, Nation’s chief asset is the futuristic action fantasy “Midknight.” The much-publicized project was stymied by the death of Oscar-winning set designer Anton Furst (“Batman”), who was to have designed the sets and executive-produced the Jackson-starring vehicle. It has since been revitalized with Howard Rodman rewriting the screenplay.

Sources emphasized that other aspects of the arrangement that the singer and Sony USA entered into in March 1991 — including the significant Jackson music deal that called for six new albums for Epic Records and the creation of Nation Records — would be unaffected by anyfilm relationship with Fox.

Reps for the entertainer failed to return calls to comment on why Jackson is looking to exit his Columbia Pictures film deal.

In response to inquiries from Daily Variety, Columbia Pictures released a statement late Friday noting, “Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures are deeply committed to the artistic freedom of our creative talent. Our partnership with Michael Jackson and Nation Films is proceeding full-speed ahead and we’re excited about showcasing his incredibly versatile talents both in feature films and across a tremendous spectrum of entertainment formats in the years to come.”

The 34-year-old superstar recently formed another film company, Jackson Prods., with two unidentified partners to produce message movies reflective of his non-profit Heal the World Foundation (Daily Variety, March 9). Jackson’s Sony USA pact includes provisions that allow him to participate in at least one other movie company outside of the deal.

Sources indicated the new Kirschner-Jackson company at Fox would focus strictly on commercially viable features.

Kirschner has been heavily involved in the feature area for H-B with the $ 35 million animated/live action Macaulay Culkin starrer “The Pagemaster”– voted as the standout by buyers at the recent American Film Market (Daily Variety, March 5) — and Disney’s highly touted Bette Midler summer release “Hocus Pocus.”

Although Kirschner would step down as H-B chairman if the Fox deal comes to fruition, sources said Turner is insisting that he remains involved in existing H-B theatrical animation projects. Neither Turner exex nor Kirschner would comment on the negotiations.

A key to the talks appears to be how future H-B movie projects involving Kirschner would be handled. A source said Turner and Fox may try to work out an arrangement analogous to the current relationship between the two for “Pagemaster”: Fox handles the domestic release while Turner takes international distribution rights.

Fox and Turner are also involved in another theatrical, “Once Upon a Forest.”

The incipient Kirschner-Jackson partnership appears to be the byproduct of their work together on a project titled “Through the Horn,” which sources speculate could land at either Columbia or Fox once the dust settles.

If Kirschner’s track record atH-B is any indication, the films to be turned out by a Turner-blessed film production company at Fox would be big-budget affairs that rely heavily on such high-tech elements as computer-generated imaging, compositing and matte paintings.

The producer of the “Child’s Play” films and and co-producer of “An American Tail,” Kirschner served as president-CEO of the Universal City-based animation company from October 1989 until April 1992.

In an effort by TBS topper Ted Turner to keep the creative exec at the studio , Kirschner was upped to H-B chairman last year and allowed to put most of his focus into theatrical projects.

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