Starz! Pix fades to black

Division produced only 1 movie in three years

John Malone’s Starz! has shut down the division it created three years ago to commission original pay TV movies.

A spokesman for Starz! acknowledged the company “is winding down its efforts to produce made-for-cable movies” but declined to go into detail about the reasons for the pullout.

Malone may be looking to save money wherever he can while he and Barry Diller put together the financing to buy all of Universal entertainment assets from Vivendi, including the movie studio, the division that produces and distributes TV series like “Law & Order” and the cable networks USA and Sci Fi channels.

Some sources, however, say the money saved from scuttling Starz Pictures amounts to little more than a rounding error in any dollar bid Malone and Diller would have to cobble together to take control of Universal.

Producers who had development deals with Starz Pictures say they were told that a down economy triggered Malone’s desire to cut costs. Starz! was one of the cable networks hurt by the collapse of giant cable operator Adelphia Communications, which defaulted on many of its payments to services like Starz!.

Starz Pictures also became an easy target of Malone’s accountants because it delivered only one movie in its three years of operation, the $10 million biopic “Joe & Max,” shot entirely on location in Berlin and dealing with the watershed 1938 heavyweight-championship bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, which became a symbol for triumph over Nazi racism on the eve of WWII. Two German companies, Gemini Film and Intl. West Pictures, helped Starz! finance “Joe & Max,” along with the Motion Picture Corp. of America.

The woman in charge of original movies for Starz Pictures, Paige Orloff, quit in frustration earlier this summer, and the company hadn’t replaced her. She will now work as a consultant to help producers of projects in development to place them at other networks.

The movie closest to being greenlit was “The Riverman,” about the search for serial killer Ted Bundy. Another, “Up From Hatred,” is a biopic about one of the founders of the Aryan Nation, a domestic hate group.

Veteran producers like Thomas Carter, Robert Greenwald and Paul Goff also had projects at Starz Pictures that will have to find new homes.

Starz! will continue to buy the world premieres of busted theatricals as a way to funnel at least some original movies to its lineup of wall-to-wall theatricals harnessed from Starz!’s exclusive pay TV output deals with Touchstone, Universal, Miramax, New Line and others. It gains Columbia’s theatrical output in 2005, but loses Universal’s and New Line’s to HBO.

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