Burns in feature talks with Merchant Ivory

Award-winning producer Ken Burns is in talks with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory to direct his first feature, a biopic about Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who broke Major League baseball’s color barrier.

According to Burns, who produced PBS’ acclaimed “Civil War” documentary, a deal with Merchant Ivory (who are currently signed to Disney) would not take place “before next year.” Merchant and Ivory, the producer-director team of “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” are interested in funding a Burns-directed film about Robinson.

Burns’ interest in Robinson’s life began during the filming of his nine-part “Baseball” documentary, which will air on PBS this September. It will be the first property distributed under a just-inked PBS-Turner Home Entertainment homevideo agreement.

Burns, who was in New York Monday for the unveiling of the PBS-Turner deal, was singled out as a target by the Committee for Fairness to PBS Producers, a group of independent producers calling for a boycott of the PBS-Turner venture.

The committee is composed of more than a dozen filmmakers and producers who say they are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties from a failed PBS-Pacific Arts video distribution venture. Pacific Arts was responsible for paying royalties under that deal.

The committee characterized Burns as a “pied piper,” being used “to lure more titles to the PBS-Turner label,” and called on him “to back off from promoting that line until his colleagues have been treated fairly by the system.”

Ironically, Burns is reportedly owed many hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Pacific Arts video of his “Civil War.”

“The Pacific Arts mess is a serious situation, and I’m probably the person most hurt by it, but I don’t believe in arresting every-thing we’re doing … This could take years,” Burns said in response to the call for a boycott.

As part of the PBS-Turner deal, Burns’ “Civil War” will now be distributed by Turner Home Entertainment, along with his “Baseball” series.

Additionally, Burns is working on a series of American biographies that are being partially funded by PBS. His next project for the pubcaster is a documentary on Thomas Jefferson, to be followed by one focusing on explorers Lewis and Clark.

Eric L. Sass, PBS senior vice president of video marketing, said that PBS-Turner will be negotiating with Burns for video rights for the bio-docs.

PBS will retain all rights to the docus under the new Turner agreement. PBS will be directly responsible to producers.

The PBS-Turner arrangement also keeps direct marketing of the videos in-house.

Additionally, PBS and Turner have established a $ 20 million co-production fund to produce new documentary product.

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