MUPPETS MAKE MOVIES

Kermit the Frog wants Mickey Mouse to put up his paws.

Jim Henson Pictures, the spanking new film division of the wildly successful Jim Henson Prods., has set up its exclusive shingle with Sony Pictures Entertainment with the unspoken but extremely noticeable goal of taking a bite out of Disney’s reign over kids pics.

In a deal that’s worth more than $200 million, Henson will put together 15 features pics over five years specifically aimed at that golden goose of box office earners – family entertainment.

Henson Prods, recently named former Columbia Pictures senior veepee of production Stephanie Allain to head up the nascent venture with co-prexy and chief operating officer Charles Rivkin. A mother of a 10-year-old boy and a newborn, Allain takes a soft, non-confrontational approach to her Mousy competitors. But insiders say she’s a keen production executive who will bring energy and excitement to the Henson monicker.

“We want to be an alternative label to Disney,” says Allain, from her Raleigh Studios office overlooking the Paramount lot. “Disney is the only other place that means something in family films. We’re not really competing or challenging Disney on what they do. We just want to be the other label out there.”

That’s a nice way of putting it. Insiders, however, confirm a fervent desire to go Mouse hunting.

“Of course we are,” admits one executive.

Sony wooed Henson into its fold after Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos. chairman Mark Canton made the company an offer that was truly too good to pass up. The deal was practically a direct swipe at Disney, which has distribbed the last two Henson Muppet pics, has a TV pact through ABC with Henson Prods., and runs the movies routinely on the Disney Channel.

“I believe that Disney understands our decision to go with Sony,” says Rivkin. “It’s a unique opportunity.”

Rivkin won’t divulge details of the deal, but admits Sony is putting up all the financing. Henson brings its well-regarded label and its creative expertise to the table.

“Mark Canton came to me and Brian (Henson, prexy and CEO of Henson Prods.) with a really unique proposal,” says Rivkin. “We’ve had offers to set up shop, but this was really something amazing. It worked great for both companies.”

On the creative side, Allain outlines a plan that includes tempting A-list directors and scribes into bringing their favorite children’s feature ideas to the screen. She points to filmmakers such as Jonathan Demme, “who just had his third child,” Spike Lee and Caroline Thompson.

“A lot of them are just starting families and would love to do a movie for their kids,” she says.

Even Robert Rodriguez, helmer of Columbia’s raucous paean to firearms, “Desperado,” is lining up in Allain’s sights. “I think Robert could make a great family film,” she adds.

Henson, Allain says, wants to create alternative children’s fare that explores other non-formulaic avenues of the genre. “Our challenge is to create this new breed of family entertainment,” she says. “That’s basically what we’re doing.”

And then there’s the vaunted Muppet product. Disney has rights to two more muppet movies – “Muppet Treasure Island,” which has a Feb. 16 release date, and another muppet musical. After that, Henson plans to give Sony three more of the pics.

But as much product as the Henson startup is likely to generate, Allain maintains that three Henson pics per year will be the limit.

“Our mandate is to do two to three pictures per year. We don’t want to do so many movies that the label starts to dissipate,” she says.

Henson senior execs had a company retreat in November where the nuts-and-bolts strategies were set forth for Sony brass. Canton says Henson will not only fill up necessary slots in Sony’s distribution slate, but also produce movies in areas like puppetry, new technologies and animation.

“We expect to be on the cutting edge of entertainment that is unlimited in scope, but will primarily be in the family genre,” Canton says. “It should be for children of all ages. We don’t see this as a limited business at all. We’re going to do some imaginative things.”

Henson will create new characters, Canton explains, that will be easily exploitable in the movies. That’s likely to translate into serious merchandising revenue as well. “They are a character-driven company. We, along with them, plan on building new characters. We think they can help us drive our business,” he says.

Lisa Henson, prexy of Columbia Pictures and daughter of Jim Henson, says she was thrilled to see her namesake firm land at Sony.

“As a sibling, it’s emotionally gratifying,” Lisa Henson says. “We always use a metaphor of the family when you’re talking about corporations. Columbia and TriStar are sister companies, for example. So it’s kind of fun for the metaphor to be literalized.”

Most refreshing for cost-conscious Sony will likely be Allain’s very matter-of-fact approach to filmmaking.

“First of all,” she maintains, “they shouldn’t be outrageously budgeted movies. A lot of those tickets are going to be half-priced for kids. So why start off behind?” And in this age of congressional debate over violence in films, Allain looks to the Henson name to convey something even more important than money. Says the executive: “These should be movies that you can feel free to take your kids to.”

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