Two high-profile production announcements punctuated the steady hum of opening-day business Thursday at the American Film Market where close to 1,400 registered buyers convened with 300 selling companies under overcast skies at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

Producer Larry Kasanoff and Kushner-Locke’s Donald Kushner and Gregory Cascante unveiled a joint-venture to produce, distribute and merchandise two sci-fi action pics in the vein of “Mortal Kombat,” which Kasanoff’s Threshold Entertainment produced for New Line, bringing in more than $100 million in worldwide grosses. The first picture, which will involve European co-producing partners, will be “Beowulf,” updated from the Norse legend and scheduled to begin lensing in September in Europe starring Christopher Lambert.

Kasanoff, who is a week from wrapping production on the sequel “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation,” said the deal with K-L is intended to follow the “Mortal Kombat” model in which franchise pics will be exploited through other media, such as interactive games and merchandising. “We see ourselves as intellectual property managers,” Kasanoff said. “Only this time we will own the negative.”

Veteran visual effects supervisor Alison Savitch will exec produce the pic, which will be budgeted in the $25 million to $30 million range. Script is from first-time scribe Mark Leahy. A director is to be announced.

Separately, writer-director David Cronenberg and Toronto-based Alliance Communications — who teamed on the controversial cult pic “Crash” — said they are reteaming on a $40 million follow-up. Titled “eXistenZ,” Croneberg told Daily Variety, “This is a philosophical sci-fi action adventure,” with male and female co-leads who play characters “requiring intelligence as well as athletic grace.”

The pic, repped for overseas distribution by Alliance Intl. prexy Mark Horowitz, focuses on a futuristic world where interactive game designers are in power. The title refers to a virtual-reality game that “borders on biology.”

‘Exciting return’

“This is an exciting return to this territory for me” said the director of “The Fly,” “Scanners” and “Videodrome.” “It will be very heavy on creature effects and action effects.”

He anticipates a fall start in and around Toronto, for an early 1998 release.

Initial buzz in the Loews corriders centered around “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers’ film for Polygram, “Gloria,” the Sharon Stone pic from Mandalay/Summit, “Shakespeare’s Sister,” the Kenneth Branagh-Madeline Stowe drama also from Polygram, Bruno Barreto’s “One Tough Cop” from MDP and two Miramax pics, John Dahl’s “Blackout” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Rum Punch.”

Some major players were absent from the scene, however, such as Intermedia’s Guy East, who was busy holding meetings elsewhere, and New Line International’s distrib chief Rolf Mitweg. While New Line has an office at the AFM, visiting distribs were transported by bus to meetings with Mitweg at New Line’s West Hollywood offices.

(Don Groves contributed to this report.)

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