Exec overseeing union between two companies

Joe Drake, newly anointed co-COO of Lionsgate and prexy of the company’s motion picture group, still starts his days the same way.

“We have a very robust slate, but every single morning I wake up saying, ‘We need another,’ ” he says. “For the right kind of film, there’s an unquenchable thirst.”

Drake’s in the spotlight with his return to Lionsgate — where he had been head of international six years ago. In 2001, he ankled to launch and head up Senator Intl., which became stand-alone company Mandate Pictures in 2005.

Last month, Lionsgate acquired Mandate in a deal worth $56 million. Now Drake heads up all of Lionsgate’s film activities and is overseeing the marriage between the two companies.

In the past few years, Lionsgate has transformed into a vertically integrated mini-major — with 400 employees and a slate of 20 pics. “I’m in a race to get caught up,” he admits.

Drake’s impressed with what he’s seen so far. Since he’s come aboard, Lionsgate launched two major releases — oater “3:10 to Yuma” and comedy “Good Luck Chuck” — with respectable box office. “It’s a much leaner company than most; I think we’re really pounding on all cylinders,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Drake insists Mandate’s brand will remain intact. “One of the key tenets of the deal was that Mandate would continue to operate as is,” he says. “Lionsgate and Mandate really are completely separate businesses. We really don’t have to kill one in order to have the other.”

Lionsgate has a wide variety of mainstream releases, ranging from family drama “The Christmas Cottage” to horror franchise “Saw 4″ to Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married?”

Mandate’s fare is more eclectic, focusing on genre titles and somewhat offbeat pics that can still find enough recognition and traction to be licensed in foreign markets, such as “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” starring Dustin Hoffman as a 243-year-old owner of a magical toy store. Upcoming Mandate offerings include comedies “Juno” and “Harold & Kumar 2,” and Ghost House Pictures horror-thriller “30 Days of Night.” (All are released by different U.S. distribs.)

With the American Film Market approaching, transformations have already been afoot on the international film sales side.

Lionsgate’s sales operations are merging with Mandate’s under the Mandate Intl. banner. Mandate sales VP Helen Lee-Kim takes the title of president at the division, while Lionsgate’s and Mandate’s sales heads, Stephanie Denton and Mali Kinberg, respectively, have ankled.

Drake and Lee-Kim say the changes won’t mean any fundamental shift in the sales operations. “It really will be business as usual,” Lee-Kim asserts. “We’re just trying to live up to the vision of the merger.”

Lee-Kim notes the transition, while time-consuming, has been essentially seamless. “I’ve really drunk the Kool-Aid,” she adds with a laugh.

Mandate’s sales arm will carry on with its current operations and expand its sales slate to include all Lionsgate titles. Drake believes that the move makes sense, given Mandate’s robust third-party sales business.

“What we’re doing is creating a label that won’t confuse people in an area of the business that’s underserved,” he adds.

The shingle will continue to represent titles from Mandate, Ghost House Pictures, Gold Circle and other third-party producers — and it will sell these rights to all international distributors. (Lionsgate’s own local distribution channels in Oz and the U.K. will continue to operate as usual.)

“The move is about keeping alive the Mandate style of getting each film into the hands of the right distributor,” Lee-Kim says. “We are always very hands-on in each market from the time we initially see the film until we see it on TV.”

Mandate’s AFM slate includes drama “Brothers,” helmed by Jim Sheridan with Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman; “Chilled in Miami,” starring Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr.; “Bachelor #2,” toplining Kate Hudson and Dane Cook; “Juno,” starring Ellen Page and Michael Cera; horror remake “The Eye,” with Jessica Alba; “Sleuth,” with Michael Caine and Jude Law; “White Jazz,” starring George Clooney; and genre titles “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” “Daybreakers” and “The Burrowers.”

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