Fred Bernstein
Courtesy of Astute Films

Veteran Hollywood executive Fred Bernstein has launched Los Angeles-based Astute Films as a motion picture financing and production company, Variety has learned.

Bernstein, who headed production at Columbia and Universal, has assembled an initial $50 million of private equity financing and is looking to back films with mid-range budgets rather than franchises.

“We’ll be very judicious and strategic as to our spending,” Bernstein told Variety.

The company has acquired movie rights to Albert French’s novel “Billy” and set up the project with Marty Davidson (“The Lords of Flatbush”), Wendell Pierce (Selma,” “Treme”) and Jerry Leider (“On the Road”) to produce with Davidson directing from his own script.

Set in rural Mississippi in 1947, the film depicts a racially-charged incident of taunting and bullying that results in the tragic death of a 14-year-old white girl at the hands of a 10-year-old black boy named Billy. The values of the community are put to test when the boy is charged with first degree murder and the prosecutor seeks the death penalty.

“Astute Films is about facilitating the production of movies that should be made, but might not get made, with the current focus on comic book superheroes and studio tent pole movies,” Bernstein said.

“My studio experience involves some of the biggest blockbusters ever made, such as ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Men in Black,’ and ‘As Good as it Gets.’ But my experience also includes ‘Stand by Me,’ ‘The Last Emperor,’ ‘Fried Green Tomatoes,’ ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘Get on the Bus’ and ‘Hope and Glory’ – the kind of quality movies that are today struggling to find financing and distribution.”

Bernstein said Astute Films can make a difference in backing quality films.

“‘Billy is that kind of movie,” he added. “Although set almost 70 years ago, this story is extremely pertinent today and is a tour de force of dramatic compression. Our views on race, religion, and our system of justice are all challenged through vivid characters grappling with powerful issues, with surprising relevance in 2016.”

Astute Films has made its first hire with Dominique Telson as VP of development and production. She has been an independent producer for films and television and was the longtime VP of original programming for Showtime, overseeing “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” starring Kirsten Dunst, and Danny Glover’s “Just a Dream.”

Bernstein’s previous titles include president of the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Companies, senior VP of the MCA Motion Picture Group and president of worldwide production at Columbia Pictures.

Most recently, he was a partner at the Katten Muchin Rosenman law firm, where he specialized in issues surrounding the creation, financing, production, distribution and branding of entertainment.

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