Studio, Oz outfit partner to fund 20 pix

Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures have entered into a five-year feature production and distribution partnership that will have the companies co-financing at least 20 motion pictures produced by Village Roadshow.

Warners will have exclusive worldwide distribution rights over the pictures, except for Village Roadshow’s home turf of Australia and New Zealand.

Sweetening the deal for Warners is the addition of the studio’s own former exec, Bruce Berman, who will take over as chairman and CEO of Roadshow Pictures. As former Warners’ theatrical production president, Berman had shepherded such successes as “The Fugitive” and “Twister.” He left WB 18 months ago and signed on as independent producer with the studio under his film company, Plan B Entertainment.

The deal brings Warners a new partner in film financing, and boosts Village Roadshow into the big leagues of movie production.

“Village Roadshow has never attempted this level of film program before,” Berman said. “This is a new kind of business for them.”

Village is angling to make four to six pictures per year under the agreement, Berman said. Feature product for the venture will come from a variety of sources, prominent among them existing WB development properties and those under development at Berman’s Plan B shingle.

Others projects will likely emanate from producers who have deals on the lot — many of whom Berman signed up during his tenure as WB exec.

“I don’t think there’s anyone that knows the inventory better than I do,” Berman said.

Existing Village Roadshow production plans, such as the joint venture with Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Prods., also fit under the new agreement.

The films would likely span the budgetary spectrum, Berman said, from low-budget projects, to more expensive star-driven vehicles. The funding arrangements on the projects may vary as well.

The first project to fall under the co-production deal is “Matrix,” a sci-fi thriller set to start shooting in Australia in March. It stars Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, and is produced by Joel Silver.

The deal goes some of the way toward filling the production and financing gap left by this year’s departure of New Regency from the WB fold, studio chairman and co-CEO Robert Daly.

“When we knew we weren’t going to renew our deal with New Regency, we did start looking at alternatives,” Daly said.

Gregory Coote, Village Roadshow’s president and chief operating officer, will continue to manage business operations under Berman, but the delineation between the two execs’ jobs hasn’t yet been precisely determined.

It’s a comfortable fit for the two companies. Village Roadshow has distributed WB theatrical releases in Australia and New Zealand for the past 25 years. The two companies have also partnered in theme parks in Australia as well as in film exhibition in Australia, the U.K., Germany, Italy and Taiwan.

Village Roadshow Pictures is a subsidiary of Village Roadshow Ltd., Australia’s largest entertainment company.

But Village Roadshow’s role as Aussie distributor of Warner films has taken some ups and downs, such as its disastrous attempt to distribute the WB pic “Cutthroat Island.”

(Don Groves in Sydney and Rex Weiner contributed to this report.)

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