Kidvidder's first film will be 'Thomas' adaptation

NEW YORK — Hit Entertainment, the kidvid mainstay known for “Thomas the Tank Engine,” “Barney and Friends” and “Bob the Builder,” has launched a movie division.

Hit Movies is starting with adaptations of the company’s TV portfolio, but the gameplan is to evolve into a broader-ranging family film shop. First up is “Thomas,” which is aimed for a late 2010 release.

Films will be mostly live action (except for a traditional animated take on “Angelina Ballerina”) and encompass a wide range of budgets.

Julia Pistor, a Nickelodeon vet who steered Paramount’s hit “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Rugrats” features, has been tapped to head Hit Movies, which is based in Los Angeles. Hit has offices in Gotham and London.

“We’re not making preschool movies or making movies just to have feature-length TV episodes,” Pistor said. “We’re looking to tell stories that are compelling to the whole family.”

Hit has undergone major changes since it was taken over by private-equity firm Apax Partners in 2005 for just shy of $1 billion. It had total consumer products revenue, including homevid, of $2 billion in 2008, according to License Global.

Chief exec Jeffrey Dunn, also a Nickelodeon vet, took the reins last year and has engineered a series of deals — domestic homevid distribution with Lionsgate, toys with Fisher-Price and a few more.

Armed with a few natural marketing hooks — “Bob” turns 10 this year, “Barney” hit 20 last year, and “Thomas” will mark his 65th anniversary in 2010 — the goal has been to push out into new arenas, and that now means movie theaters.

UTA has been brought on to advise the company on strategy and to help launch Hit Movies. The agency will steer some of its talent toward Hit projects and help ensure that titles get proper handling by Hollywood. (No distrib deals are set yet, and an overall output deal is unlikely at this stage.)

“Having the kind of brand equity they have in the world we’re in is extremely valuable,” UTA partner Jeremy Zimmer said. “They have characteristics that help them go well beyond the preschool space.”

There are countervailing trends in the family biz. There has been the overall surge in revenue and sophistication of all-ages fare since the “Harry Potter” franchise, DreamWorks and Pixar pointed the way, but the economic crisis has limited Hit’s liquidity and accelerated the decline of DVD sales.

“You have to be disciplined,” Dunn said about the financial outlook for films. “We’re not going to cheap out, and we’re not going to wig out.”

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