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J2’s branching out

Its humor has been called inane, insane and infantile, but J2 Communications chief James Jimirro says National Lampoon is becoming sophisticated — at least in terms of its business plan.

Interactive media joint ventures, theme restaurants and a foray into the public markets for funding are on the agenda this year, Jimirro told Daily Variety.

Opportunity knockin’

“We have a real opportunity to tap the market,” he said. “We certainly anticipate that that kind of thing will happen in the next 12 months. We have turned the company around (and) have now got to grow aggressively.” J2 shares closed Tuesday up 5/32 at $ 1.50.

J2, which last quarter reported its first profit (2 cents) since July 31, 1990, produces National Lampoon videos and licenses the National Lampoon name in film, other entertainment media and merchandise.

The company underwent a major restructuring after acquiring National Lampoon in late 1990, leaking red ink as it wrote off bad debts related to video operations and settled some legal actions.

“The homevideo business was great to us in the ’80s but what we saw was the consolidation of the business,” says Jimirro, who created the Disney Channel.

Debuts in spring

J2 produces made-for-video National Lampoon movies (the first is due for release this spring) but has a three-pic feature deal with New Line Cinema as producer and distributor.

The first New Line project, “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon I,” released last winter, racked up domestic B.O. of about $ 28 million, according to Morgan Stanley data.

Jimirro declined to identify the second pic, due out next November, except to say that production begins in early March. Published reports have said the pic will be a spoof of Stephen King movies.

J2 has already tested the themed entertainment market by licensing the National Lampoon name to Dolphin Cruises for weekend cruises from Miami, featuring comedians and NL product. But a powwow last month with design firm KBD yielded the idea for a themed restaurant featuring (what else?) comedian-waiters and tableside funny video jukeboxes.

Location’s secret

Jimirro was cagey about the first planned eatery, saying only that it will be in a town “one hour from L.A. with a UC branch with 19,000 students. … If it’s successful, we could replicate it across the country.”

In addition to outside recreational facilities, J2’s other major focus near-term is interactive media. Last year, game designer Spectrum HoloByte produced and marketed “National Lampoon’s Chess Maniac 5 Billion & 1,” but J2 is now talking to four or five companies, including Sierra On-Line, about taking an active role in developing interactive software.

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