U set to distrib

Gotham-based the Shooting Gallery and Los Angeles-based Middle Fork Prods. have teamed to co-produce large-budget films that will be distributed domestically by Universal Pictures.

Under a three-year, rent-a-system deal, U has agreed to handle domestic distribution for films produced by the partners, while TSG retains all foreign rights. Although TSG and Middle Fork will co-finance the pics, there are no put films under the deal, and U will have a say as to which films it will release.

Middle Fork chairwoman Verna Harrah said in a statement that the banners’ “intent is to make two to three pictures a year in the $25 million-$100 million range over the next three years.”

There are no films under the pact at this time.

That budget range will be new territory for TSG, which has produced such low-budget indies as “Sling Blade,” “Niagara, Niagara” and “Laws of Gravity.”. Middle Fork’s first production was “Anaconda” for Columbia, for whom the banner is developing a sequel.

It’s expected that with U attached as the domestic partner, the two production banners will now seek some sort of credit facility or other financing to accommodate their move into higher-priced films.

“In the past few years, Verna Harrah and (TSG chairman and CEO) Larry Meistrich have each demonstrated the kind of fresh talent, taste and creativity I look for in producer-partners, and I’m thrilled that we’re in business with them,” said Universal co-chairman Stacey Snider.

Middle Fork and TSG have had an existing agreement to co-produce and develop specialty and big-budget pics for more than a year (Daily Variety, Aug. 31, 1998). Under this original pact, Harrah, who joined the TSG board of directors, agreed to fund development of projects with TSG.

The Shooting Gallery separately struck a rent-a-system pact with U to supply the studio’s newly formed (and unnamed) specialty films division with approximately four films a year (Daily Variety, July 21). Under this deal, the specialty label’s toppers, Claudia Gray and Paul Hardart, will oversee the release and marketing of the TSG pics, which are expected to be budgeted under $10 million each. This arrangement replaces TSG’s previous deal with Artisan Entertainment, which was to expire at the end of 1999.

Snider’s counterpart, co-chairman Brian Mulligan, said, “This new alliance will help fuel a pipeline of exciting and diverse new projects for Universal and our new specialty film division.”

While the separate TSG pics are targeted for U’s specialty division, the Middle Fork/TSG films are intended to go through Universal’s main division.

“I look forward to expanding the taste and scope of films that our two companies will be able to achieve together,” Meistrich said.

(Oliver Jones in New York contributed to this report.)

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