Now that the dust has all but settled at MCA Inc. under president Ron Meyer and his new corporate hires, the company is turning its attention to strengthening its production division.

The spotlight shifts to the studio’s internal moviemaking unit after a hectic summer that started with the sale of MCA to the Seagram Co. and was followed by high-level executive shuffles and success at the box office – with “Apollo 13,” “Casper,” “Babe” and ‘ Waterworld” together earning more than $680 million worldwide.

While production prexy Hal Lieberman has said since the spring that he was taking steps to bolster his division, it was just last week that he made his first senior executive hire since taking the reins from Casey Silver 14 months ago. Joe Singer, who three months ago inked a first-look production pact with the studio, was tapped as executive VP of production.

The Singer hire was regarded by studio-based producers and agents as a step in the right direction for a production division that has been labeled by some as reactive rather than proactive. Singer is known as an aggressive pursuer of star-driven and spec material – qualities that can only bolster the production ranks. Singer becomes the highest-ranking production exec under Lieberman.

For years, the studio has relied on its deals with heavy-hitter producers and directors, most significantly Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment production company, which has been folded into DreamWorks. Perhaps because Universal has such a strong lineup of outside deals – including its pact with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment – the studio’s inhouse development unit has by most accounts been neglected.

Junior assignments

In some cases, junior execs have been assigned to handle the accounts of the studio’s most seasoned and prolific producers. Universal sources suggest that Lieberman has plans to change that. Toward that end, Singer has been assigned to work with Sylvester Stallone, with whom the studio recently inked a $60 million, three-pic pact, and producer Lawrence Gordon. Singer was instrumental in setting up at Universal the big-budget, Stallone starrer “Daylight” with Rob Cohen helming and the high-profile “Courage Under Fire” with Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan at Fox 2000 with Ed Zwick directing.

“Joe is aggressive, enthusiastic and goal-oriented,” Lieberman said. “That’s why we signed a production deal with him. Those same qualities make him the ideal candidate for this job.”

But Singer’s hiring initially took some execs and agents by surprise, as several noted that in most cases it takes years of working up the production ranks to achieve the title of exec VP. Singer has never worked as a studio exec and the first movie he will receive a producing credit on is “Daylight.”

Singer’s segue from producer to studio exec had been in the works for the past month. Sources said he inked a three year pact with Universal.

While his job description has him responsible for developing projects and overseeing production on Universal’s feature film slate, Singer will focus mostly on helping the studio acquire high-profile projects.

“Daylight” is shooting in Rome, with plans for release next summer, as is another of Universal’s big-budget pics helmed by Cohen, “Dragon heart.” Upcoming releases include Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” the Brad Pitt-Bruce Willis starrer “Twelve Monkeys” and Eddie Murphy as “The Nutty Professor.”

Bigpix

The studio has in development a number of high-profile projects, including “The Chamber,” based on John Grisham’s novel, with Chris O’Donnell attached to star for helmer James Foley, and several pricey spec scripts and film rights acquired this year, including “Simple Simon,” “Suspect Zero” and most recently the film rights to comic book “Prime” for producer Charles Gordon. Sidney Sheinberg’s Bubble Factory and producer Perry Katz are making “Flipper” and “McHale’s Navy” and sources said the studio has in the pipe line enough Amblin projects to provide movies through 1997.

Several producers noted that the studio has a good team of execs to develop the material. The production unit under Lieberman comprises senior VPs Kate Barker and Barry Isaacson, VPs Peter Arnoff, Carr D’Angelo, Leonard Romberg and Anne Milder, and six directors of development and creative execs. None of the execs will report to Singer. Lieberman was the studio’s last exec VP, before he was promoted 14 months ago to president of production.

Paul Neeson, VP at Singer’s production company, is expected to join Universal’s production ranks as a director of development. Singer’s company will be folded, but he will retain producing credit on his projects set up at other studios.

A relative newcomer to the industry, Singer has worked in Hollywood for about 3 1/2 years, spending the first three under a first-look production deal with producer John Davis.

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