Savoy Pictures has stepped into the high-stakes poker game of Hollywood distribution with commitments for an initial slate of 10 movies tentatively scheduled to go before the cameras this year and early next year.

Savoy plans four releases this year, and another eight to 10 in ’94, as it sets its sights on becoming a household name in the nation’s movie houses–akin to a Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Co. or Warner Bros. And Savoy has the money to buy name recognition, thanks to a $ 32 million initial stock offering (see related story).

Launched just 12 months ago, the upstart start-up has quietly marched through Hollywood and lined up projects with such talent as Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, Tom Berenger and Kathleen Turner, as well as A-list directors Garry Marshall, Mike Nichols, John Milius and Sir Richard Attenborough.

“The larger talent is giving them the benefit of the doubt right now, because of who they are,” said International Creative Management president Jim Wiatt. “They haven’t failed yet.”

The company is headed by Victor Kaufman, who was chairman and chief executive of TriStar Pictures when it went public on May 24, 1985.

Kaufman was also central in cutting deals with such production powerhouses as Carolco Pictures and Castle Rock Entertainment.

Kaufman is partnered at Savoy Pictures with Lewis Korman, who raised more than $ 300 million in off-balance-sheet financing for Columbia Pictures in the 1980s and heads Savoy’s movie unit.

Rounding out Savoy’s creative team is Alan Greisman, an acquisitions and production tactician.

Attorneys and agents said the company’s first 10 movies aren’t bush league. High points include Robert De Niro’s directorial debut “A Bronx Tale,” Attenborough’s tearjerker “Shadowlands” and director Wes Craven’s movie based on the Marvel Comics character “Dr. Strange.”

‘Honeymooners’ on list

The company has also plucked two screen adaptations of old CBS television shows –“The Honeymooners,” which will be produced by former Columbia Pictures chairman Frank Price, and “Have Gun Will Travel,” which will be produced by Ray Stark’s Rastar and Jerry Leider. The projects will be produced in association with CBS and CBS Entertainment prexy Jeff Sagansky, who worked for Kaufman and Korman as chairman of TriStar in the late 1980s.

In other deals, the company purchased “Hairspray” director John Waters’ “Serial Mom” in turnaround from Columbia Pictures and plans to roll in April, while “Conan the Barbarian” director John Milius will helm the westerner “The Texas Rangers” later this year.

Rounding out its slate, Savoy has pacted with “Postcards From the Edge” director Nichols for the screen adaptation of “The Simple Plan” and has linked with executive producer Mario Kassar on director Tab Murphy’s action adventure “The Last of the Dog Men.””Pretty Woman” director Marshall’s project is “Free of Eden,” which will be produced by Alexandra Rose.

It wasn’t just executive credentials that helped Savoy build its slate. The company has embarked on a strategy that allows filmmakers to own the negatives to their movies eventually — a tack untried by the studios. “Most majors control the copyright and distribution rights; Savoy is prepared to make other kinds of concessions,” ICM chairman Jeff Berg said.

Agents excited

Attorneys and agents are excited by Savoy’s insurgence because it has added another buyer to the mix — roughly seven of its first 10 movies are packages from talent brokers ICM and Creative Artists Agency.

As a domestic distributor, Savoy will initially rely on foreign presales in international territories — a tactic it may abandon as the company’s capital grows.

To deliver performance in the crucial U.S. market, Savoy has hired another veteran Hollywood executive — former Columbia Pictures distribution president Jimmy Spitz. His task is perhaps the toughest of all.

Savoy will have to establish playdates and barter for favorable terms with United Artists Theatres, Cineplex Odeon, American Multi Cinema, Carmike Cinema and General Cinemas –five circuits that control roughly 8,600 of the nation’s 24,639 screens.

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