Firm exits film biz to focus on television

After three prolific but unprofitable years in the feature film business, Rysher Entertainment is calling it quits.

The company, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, announced plans Tuesday to focus exclusively on the expansion of its TV operations while phasing out all of its theatrical production activities.

The move will result in the elimination of about 40 full-time positions, mainly among feature production and marketing executives and support staff.

Employees were greeted Tuesday morning by memos inviting them to a 10 a.m. meeting at which president and CEO Tim Helfet announced the layoffs “with little ceremony,” according to one source.

In explaining the decision, Helfet said that Rysher had lost money on its theatrical product. “The performance of our film slate is not news. The fact of the matter is, with few exceptions, we just haven’t been able to produce films that found an audience.”

Rysher never managed to score a major box office hit. The company probably suffered its biggest losses on the MGM/UA distributed “Turbulence.” The picture, which cost nearly $60 million to produce, grossed only $11.5 million in the U.S. (see chart).

Helfet would not discuss how much money Rysher’s film endeavors have cost its privately held parent company. However, informed sources put the amount in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Cox execs could not be reached for comment.

The decision to get out of the film business comes just a month after founder and former CEO Keith Samples exited the six-year old company (Daily Variety, June 1).

Rysher will continue to operate its international film distribution arm at least until year’s end. However, Meggan Kimberly, senior VP, international, is ankling the company.

Joe Drake, senior VP, international theatrical sales, will handle remaining sales on current and upcoming projects. Television distribution will be overseen by Cathie Trotta, VP of international TV sales.

Rysher also will cease its aggressive co-financing activities, which had enjoyed a somewhat higher success rate than the company’s own productions. Rysher put up portion of the budgets on a number of Paramount films including “Primal Fear,” “Escape from L.A.,” “The Saint,” “Dear God,” “Private Parts” and “Kiss the Girls.”

“I don’t think the business of just co-financing films is a business for us to be in,” said Helfet. “We want to focus on a business where we can add value with or without partners.”

That business, said Helfet, is television.

Indeed, Rysher has achieved some measure of success in a relatively short time in producing and distributing programming for network, cable and syndication.

The company has nine series on the fall schedule, including “Nash Bridges” and “Dellaventura” on CBS; “Oz” on HBO; “USA High” on USA; and “Soldier of Fortune,” “FX: The Series,” “Strange Universe,” “Highlander: The Series” and “Comedy Showcase” in syndication.

The Rysher logo will not disappear from the bigscreen immediately. Two completed features, “A Smile Like Yours,” directed by Rysher founder Samples, and “Going West,” starring Dennis Quaid and Danny Glover, will be distributed under an existing agreement with Paramount Pictures.

Rysher also co-financed Par’s upcoming “Kiss the Girls,” starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.

Meanwhile, the horror film, “18th Angel,” now completed, has no U.S. distributor. Production is under way on Rysher’s “The Opposite of Sex,” directed by Don Roos and starring Lisa Kudrow and Martin Donovan. Helfet said the company is in discussions with several distributors for U.S. rights to the picture.

Rysher hopes to find a home for several development projects, including director Robert Harling’s “Homemade Sin” and Glen and Les Charles’ script “The Lady Takes an Ace.”

Rysher was formed in 1991 when Samples, a former Warner Bros. syndication salesman, secured the rights to rep off-network distribution for NBC’s Saturday-morning show “Saved by the Bell.”

Cox bought the company in 1993 for a little under $15 million, of which $9 million went to pay off accumulated debt.

Rysher announced its entry into the movie business at the MIFED film market in October 1994.

Samples is currently involved in the financing of MTV Films and Paramount’s low-budget feature “Election.”

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