LeFrak joins New Line TV pack; thesp saves day

New Line Television has taken a step toward producing movies and miniseries by signing Emmy-winning TV and Broadway producer Francine LeFrak to an exclusive production deal. LeFrak’s will be the first of several deals with writers and producers with the mandate to hatch prestige telepics and movies.

At the same time, New Line TV is stepping up a program to exploit its film assets by shopping a primetime animated version of “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” with Mike Myers providing the voice for his creation and executive producing with 3-Arts Entertainment’s Erwin Stoff.

New Line Television president Robert Friedman said both moves are designed to give his division a chance to exploit and service the divisions of Time Warner.

“We think of ourselves as an agile independent company, but the reality is we’re part of a major and we are trying different ways to take advantage of those strengths,” Friedman said.

As an example, he cited the 26 syndie segs of “Mortal Kombat,” with his company doing production and development while partnering with WB in distribution.

“And when the show launches in the fall, a week after an episode airs in syndication, a different episode will follow wrestling on TNT.”

NLTV took the turnarounded script “Legalese” to TNT, where it has become a high-profile film for the web, starring Kathleen Turner, James Garner, Gina Gershon and Mary-Louise Parker, with Glenn Jordan (“Barbarians at the Gate”) directing.

New Line Television’s bread and butter will continue to be redrafting movie franchises into tube fare. Friedman’s next big priority will be establishing a home for the “Powers” series, a task that will be helped by the film studio greenlighting a sequel for release next summer.

NLTV also has animated and episodic TV rights for “Lost in Space” and, though Friedman wouldn’t comment, the company is eyeing last weekend’s top-grossing “Blade” as a possible series.

The LeFrak pact is a major addition to the biggest growth effort for Friedman’s division — the production of six or seven telepics and miniseries geared to the younger demos. Her deal comes on the heels of a similar pact made with “Gia” producer and longtime TV exec Ilene Kahn Powers. Friedman said several others will follow.

“Francine is an important part of our strategy, because she gives us a presence in New York and spent years in the theater,” Friedman said. Her first project will be the telepic adaptation of Irish playwright Graham Reed’s “Remembrance,” a tale that’s a reverse “Romeo and Juliet,” where kids try to keep a middle-aged couple apart.

LeFrak has produced or exec produced such movies as the Alison Anders-directed “Mi Vida Loca,” HBO films that include “Prison Stories: Women on the Inside,” and the upcoming “Shot Through the Heart” and the Emmy-winning Hallmark Hall of Fame pic “Miss Rose White.” Her Broadway credits include “Children of a Lesser God,” “Crimes of the Heart” “Noises Off” and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” among others.

“New Line’s always been cutting-edge, going after risky fare, and … I’m always interested in compelling material that other people wouldn’t want to tackle,” LeFrak said.

Friedman hopes LeFrak can help the division evolve into a Hallmark for the younger audience. The seven or so films and minis slated by the new stable of producers can end up on any network, but much of it will likely stay close to home. “I want us to be the producing arm for our in-house networks,” Friedman said.

BERENGER PLAYS HERO: Tom Berenger has joined the cast of the Dimension/Millennium drama “Takedown” and in the process gets to play a hero role not once but twice.

Forest Whitaker had a signed deal to act in the film but exited just days before he was to report for shooting. Berenger stepped in and agreed to play the role of an FBI agent tracking down real-life computer whiz Kevin Mitnick.

According to producer Brad Weston, Whitaker called in sick last Wednesday morning, about four days before he was to begin filming his week or so’s worth of work. “We had a deal with him, and he told us he was sick,” said producer Weston. “It was a disappointment on so many levels. Because he’s a director, we’d think he’d understand the ramifications of a star pulling out so close to shooting.”

Whitaker’s publicist, Annette Wolf, countered that his William Morris agents gave notice Monday, two days before Weston said, and that he was genuinely ill, though she wouldn’t say with what. “He’s under a physician’s care and is ill to the extent that he cannot work,” she said. “He’s more sensitive to this kind of thing than a lot of people because he’s a director himself. He wouldn’t do this lightly.”

Weston said he, Dimension’s Bob Weinstein and Cary Granat, and Millennium’s Avi Lerner spent the next two days hunting for a replacement who could get to Wilmington, N.C., right away. “Two long days ended with a deal with Tom at 8:15 p.m. Friday evening,” Weston said.

The actor was vacationing with his wife and baby in nearby Hilton Head. “He lives in North Carolina and went home, got some clothes and got here just before he started filming Sunday. It would have been disastrous without him because we’d have had nothing to shoot Sunday.” He plays an FBI agent who, with Chris McDonald, captures Mitnick (Skeet Ulrich) with the help of computer whiz Tsutumo Shimomura (Russell Wong). The real Mitnick’s in an L.A. jail awaiting trial.

NO ‘TALE’ FOR MEL: Unable to come to terms on a deal with Warner Bros., Mel Gibson has quit negotiations to star in “A Tale of Two Cities” with director Gregory Nava and is now reading scripts for a project he might squeeze in before helming “Fahrenheit 451.” “Tale,” produced by Paula Weinstein and Barry Levinson’s Baltimore Spring Creek, will look for another star to topline the Dickens adaptation.

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