Fine Line realigns strategy

Fine Line Features, whose otherwise tepid year at the box office was saved by the $35 million domestic performance of “Shine,” dives into Cannes this week with a slate of development projects from up-and-coming indie filmmakers.

But as the arthouse film company and its parent New Line Cinema are settling into the Time Warner family, structural changes at Fine Line are expected — both strategically and in its executive suites.

According to prexy Ruth Vitale, the company is taking an aggressive acquisitions stance at the fest. The indie already snagged Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” last week with a pricey $2.5 million preemptive bid.

Two years after Fine Line redefined itself almost exclusively as a production entity under Vitale, the banner is shifting back toward an equal number of acquisitions and productions. The nearly $50 million production and acquisition budget under former owner Turner Broadcasting System is likely to be lowered

Additionally, insiders say the division’s management team is in a significant state of flux. For more than a year, unverified reports have abounded about senior executive shifts at the indie, possibly involving Vitale.

New Line president and chief operating officer Michael Lynne has maintained that no change in the executive structure of Fine Line is planned for the near future. Vitale has a contract through the end of 1998.

But sources said Lynne and New Line chairman Robert Shaye were waiting to see where New Line landed before making any decisions regarding Fine Line. New Line, which had been looking for outside financing, recently set itself up with a $500 million line of bank credit to fund its production under the Time Warner corporate banner.

Time Warner is said to be keen on the Fine Line label, which is the TW conglomerate’s only classics division. But there is no indication that financing will be forthcoming from TW.

Vitale said Fine Line will produce and acquire an equal number of films each year. But she said it will be fewer pics than the 10 to 12 releases Fine Line had planned two years ago when she took over from former prexy Ira Deutchman.

“The marketplace is so overcrowded, even in the arthouse market,” Vitale said. “It’s foolish on some level to try and release as many pictures as you can if you don’t believe that they are special. We’ll keep to six or eight films a year and hope we can satisfy a niche.”

Under Deutchman, the division was acquisition-driven. Few of its releases were homegrown productions. In 1995, Vitale was named his successor and moved in with a game plan to produce as many as 12 pics per year with budgets ranging up to $20 million.

That experiment was dented last year with critically lauded pics that had minimal B.O. returns, such as Trevor Nunn’s “Twelfth Night” and Nick Nolte starrer “Mother Night.”

“The Grass Harp,” a negative pickup directed by Charlie Matthau, and “Feeling Minnesota,” featuring Keanu Reeves, also faltered, as did the acquisitions “Carried Away,” with Dennis Hopper and Amy Irving, and “Pie in the Sky,” which featured John Goodman.

Fine Line has let its executive cadre dwindle somewhat with Vitale’s decision not to replace former veepees Jami Abell-Venit, who left a year ago, or Amy Labowitz, who ankled recently to move to Cathy Konrad’s production company.

Currently, Vitale, exec VP of production Jonathan Weisgal, VP of development and production Rachel Horovitz and New Line acquisitions exec VP Mark Ordesky top the company.

Vitale said there are just enough executives to handle the company’s 20 projects in development.

Fine Line most recently inked scribe Andrew Davies to pen the screenplay for the historical drama “Pope Joan.” The project is on a fast track.

Harry Ufland is producing the pic, which is based on Donna Woolfolk Cross’ novel about the 9th century woman who, disguised as a man, became pope.

Davies most recently adapted his novel “B. Monkey” for the screen with Michael Thomas for Michael Radford to helm.

Other development projects include:

“The Coloring House,” written and directed by James Mangold (“Heavy,” “Copland”). Pic is a fantasy about a girl whose ability to turn paintings into reality also causes the world to lose color.

“Prodigy,” directed by Gary Winick (“Sweet Nothing”), and scripted by David Fields and Ron Bass. Pic, produced by Ufland, is based on a chapter of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ diaries about the struggle to break through to an autistic child with a gift for art.

“First Kiss,” the next film from “Kicking and Screaming” writer-director Noah Baumbach. Outlaw Prods. is producing for Fine Line.

“Taft,” a vehicle for “Seven” star Morgan Freeman to star in and produce. Pic is based on a novel by Ann Patchett about a black bar manager in Memphis who becomes involved in the lives of two white teenagers while dealing with the return of his ex-wife and young son. Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”) scripted the adaptation.

“All She Wanted,” a Drew Barrymore starrer produced by Diane Keaton and Bill Robinson. Pic is about a troubled teen who dupes an entire town into believing that she’s a man.

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