Smaller slate could focus on genre fare, Rudin pix

With only three films on Miramax’s slate moving forward there just wasn’t much for Daniel Battsek to do anymore.

After four years as the president of Disney’s specialty film label, the exec said Friday he will step down from the post at the end of January. His departure and the transitioning of the company’s remaining 20 staffers from Gotham to the Mouse House’s lot in Burbank are the latest moves by Disney to downsize a label that’s struggled, like its counterparts in Hollywood, to find an audience for its more adult-skewing films.

Miramax could continue to be a home for Scott Rudin’s more high-profile dramas given that Disney will have to find a spot on its own slate for films from other producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, as well as pics from DreamWorks, for which it will turn to Touchstone.

But the label could also focus more on producing more profitable genre fare, similar to what Screen Gems has succeeded with over the years. It already has the supernatural thriller “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” in development for 2011 and has produced lower-budgeted laffers like “Extract” or the upcoming romantic comedy “The Baster” with Jennifer Aniston.

“With the change in direction at Miramax, we have reached a mutual agreement with Daniel Battsek that he will leave his post as president, effective January 2010,” topper Rich Ross said in a statement Friday afternoon. “During his 18 years of service, he has brought some very prestigious and award-winning films to the studio from ‘Calendar Girls’ to ‘The Queen’ to ‘No Country for Old Men.’ We wish Daniel the very best on his future endeavors.”

Even with a recent round of layoffs, the move came as a surprise to staffers at the company Friday, and most found out in an email sent out by the exec who attributed his departure to the “change in direction” at Miramax.

That recently involved slashing the number of films the company releases to three a year, from the six to eight it previously had on its sked, and folding much of its operations — marketing, distribution, operations and administrative support functions — into the Mouse House’s larger film group.

The resulting layoffs of its 80 employees included production chief Keri Putnam, who headed up Miramax’s L.A. office.

Disney started downscaling the division less than a month ago (Daily Variety, Oct. 2), only three days before Ross was officially named chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

While Battsek and the rest of Miramax’s creative, development, production and business and legal affairs teams were to remain in New York, the company and its 20 remaining staffers will now relocate entirely to Los Angeles. Battsek will assist in the transition.

No replacement for Battsek has yet been named, but it’s believed, given the small number of films Miramax is now responsible for, the duties will be added to those of another exec.

While Disney figures out the future of Miramax as the company puts a greater emphasis on tentpoles and family fare, one thing is clear: there is one fewer buyer of films, which has sent shivers through the independent film biz, as studios increasingly pull the plug on their specialty labels.

Studios have been downbeat on the companies, saying it’s become more difficult to recoup the costs of adult-targeted pics. But Miramax’s survival so far, albeit in smaller form, was likely helped by the fact that the studio has a first-look pact with Rudin, whose “No Country for Old Men” won the 2007 Oscar for Miramax (and partner Paramount Vantage) and received a number of noms for the shingle with 2008’s “Doubt” as well.

This year, Miramax has suffered from a string of disappointing performers at the B.O., including the recent release of “The Boys Are Back,” “Cheri,” “Extract” and “Adventureland” before that. “Boys” has earned just $728,000 domestically since its release Sept. 26.

“Adventureland” is its top earner this year with $16 million. Its top earner ever is “Chicago,” which sang its way to $307 million worldwide in 2002.

Miramax will still unspool “Everybody’s Fine” in December, while the animated toon “Gnomeo and Juliet,” featuring songs by Elton John, is still in production. Next year, it has Julie Taymor’s Shakespeare adaptation “The Tempest,” Helen Mirren thriller “The Debt” and “The Baster.”

Battsek was tapped to head Miramax in July 2005, following Disney’s split from Miramax co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Its library includes “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

A well-respected exec, Battsek first began working with Disney on U.K. film distribution in 1991 and joined Buena Vista Intl. in 1992. He was exec veep and managing director of distribution and production for BVI U.K. prior to his appointment at Miramax.

Before Disney, Battsek was managing director of Palace Pictures, overseeing marketing, acquisitions and distribution for the U.K. and Ireland.

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