Label head Liebling to return as Fox exec

Twentieth Century Fox is set to close down Fox Atomic, the production label started by Peter Rice in 2007 to generate comedy and genre films. The division had been seen as vulnerable since its marketing arm was absorbed back into Fox and Fox Searchlight in January 2008.

Label head Debbie Liebling will return as an executive at 20th Century Fox, where she’ll continue to develop comedies and genre pics for co-presidents Alex Young and Emma Watts. The fate of the other executives will be decided next week.

Fox would not confirm the move, and speculation is that the division is being eliminated because it didn’t produce enough hits — and because its chief benefactor, Rice, was elevated to run Fox Broadcasting for Rupert Murdoch.

Fox Atomic was formed in January 2007 around former chief operating officer John Hegeman, now at New Regency, and Liebling, who as a Fox exec showed a flair for comedy on such Fox hits as “Borat” and “Dodgeball.” Before that, she served as a producer on the “South Park” series and the 1999 feature film.

The label has had its name on such genre efforts as “28 Weeks Later,” “The Hills Have Eyes II” and “Turistas” and on comedies such as “The Rocker,” “The Comebacks,” “Miss March” and “12 Rounds.” Only a few were bona fide successes.

Atomic was hoping to make its biggest mark later this year with two potentially commercial films: the July 10 opener “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” directed by Chris Columbus and starring Hayden Panettiere, and “Jennifer’s Body,” the Diablo Cody-scripted, Karyn Kusama-directed horror film that stars Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. That film will be released Sept. 18.

Liebling has several other high-profile projects percolating, movies that presumably will move over the 20th. They include “28 Months Later,” a continuation of the zombie franchise launched by director Danny Boyle, and “Accidentes,” which Liebling bought as a pitch for a potential star vehicle for Sacha Baron Cohen to play an ambulance-chasing lawyer who becomes a working-class folk hero. Peter Baynham, who shared an Oscar nomination for scripting “Borat” with Baron Cohen, will write the screenplay, and Baron Cohen is overseeing the comedy as producer.

The studio could not be reached for comment.

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