Turner boosts distrib plans with Steel deal

Dawn Steel, who couldn’t reach an agreement to take the top executive job at Turner Pictures earlier this year, has inked an exclusive, four-year feature production agreement with that company for her newly formed Atlas Entertainment, Turner announced Tuesday.

The deal calls for Atlas to pump two or three movies annually through the Turner Pix banner, including live-action and animated titles.

Billed by Turner as its “first major signing of a production entity,” the agreement is believed to give Atlas significant leeway to make movies up to roughly $ 25 million (the industry average), as well as an annual discretionary fund estimated in the $ 1 million to $ 2 million range.

In forming Atlas, Steel will join forces with her husband Charles Roven and partner Bob Cavallo, who have numerous projects set up at TriStar Pictures and Universal Pictures and also run a talent management business.

The agreement comes two months after Steel and Turner broke off negotiations for her totake the top job at Turner Pictures (Daily Variety, Jan. 6); however, the new deal still enables Turner to tap Steel’s marketing and distribution knowledge as it forms its own distribution pipeline. Steel was formerly president of Columbia Pictures and president of production for Paramount Pictures.

Steel and Turner Entertainment Group president Scott Sassa said negotiations on this pact began the day after exec negotiations ended.

It is anticipated that Atlas could attempt to greenlight its first movie quickly, possibly within its first month at Turner. The agreement significantly increases the capacity of Turner Pictures, which, along with New Line Cinema Corp. and Castle Rock Entertainment, is one of the production plowhorses designed to pull parent Turner Entertainment into the mainstream movie business.

One scenario has Castle Rock, New Line and Turner Pictures all eventually having separate domestic theatrical distribution and marketing operations, while back-office accounting and delivery operations will be handled by New Line facilities. However, that plan was disputed by New Line prexy of marketing and distribution, Mitchell Goldman, who said “My understanding is that New Line distribution will be releasing all Turner product.”

Second deal

Atlas is expected to unveil in the next three weeks a second deal, providing large-scale international financing for some of the movies developed and produced by Cavallo, Roven and Steel under the Atlas banner. Germany’s TeleMunchen, France’s TF-1 and the U.K’s British Broadcasting Corp. are said to be among the foreign partners.

The international agreement could include co-financing arrangements for Steel/Roven/Cavallo movies set up at TriStar, Universal and Disney.

The Atlas-Turner pact leaves the door open for international co-financing arrangements, though Turner would likely want to fully finance the majority of Atlas product. Roven, the designer of Atlas’ international structure, had “no comment whatsoever” on the company’s foreign component.

Steel Pictures and Roven/Cavallo Prods. will fold their production entities into the new banner. The roster of 18 employees of the two firms is expected to remain status quo. Atlas headquarters have yet to be established, and company execs are looking for office space.

Sources said the Atlas business plan incorporates a record label and television deal.

Steel, Roven and Cavallo collectively have 40 projects in active development at Walt Disney Studios, TriStar Pictures and Universal Pictures, including roughly 18 under Steel’s previous deal with Disney.

A source said Steelmay try to buy out several projects on the Steel Pictures slate at Touchstone for $ 2 million to $ 4 million; another source close to the deal had no knowledge of such an offer.

Of the Steel Pictures product developed at Touchstone, director John Turtletaub’s “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” is the only project to date placed in turnaround by Touchstone and controlled by Steel.

With Atlas in tow, Turner Pictures could move quickly fill its distribution and marketing ranks.

Steel’s presence prompted speculation that TriStar co-presidents of marketing Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones may be targeted for top slots. The two executives worked for Steel at Columbia Pictures.