Gary Barber, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Morgan Creek Prods., is expected to leave the Warner Bros.-based production company founded by James G. Robinson, sources said. Rumors of his exit began swirling about three weeks ago.

Barber, who is exercising an option in his contract to exit early, is expected to leave his post at the end of December to start his own entertainment company. Barber had no comment. He has been with Morgan Creek for 8-1/2 years.

“Nothing has been decided. We have not made a new contract, but we are continuing to negotiate,” said Robinson, who noted that the company has six months before Barber’s contract expires.

Speculation of Barber’s exit increased after the hire of Howard Kaplan, an accountant formerly with Price Waterhouse who was on the Morgan Creek account. Kaplan, who reported to Barber, does not have near the experience or the relationships that Barber possesses, however.

It has been known that Barber has been restless for the past two years. In February 1995, after rumors flew that he was ankling the company, Barber reupped with Morgan Creek for five years, adding a vice chairman title and negotiating additional equity in the company.

Insiders said Barber and Robinson had grown apart in recent times. Barber, a mainstay at the international feature film markets, oversees day-to-day operations of Morgan Creek Intl., Morgan Creek Music Group and all feature film production. He is considered to be the engine that runs the company, working behind the scenes on financing and building relationships for the company domestically and internationally.

“I thought he was first-rate when I hired him and he certainly proved himself in the job. He understands the international market and the worldwide video marketplace,” said Roth, who was at one time partnered with Robinson at Morgan Creek. “He is a terrific strategist and consummate businessman.”

Barber helped Robinson and the company with bankers in two recent business dealings, one possible bid for Orion and another bid for MGM. He was instrumental over the years in expanding the production company into other related entertainment areas.

In 1992, MCP acquired a 40% equity interest in First Intl. Theaters, which operates about 115 screens in secondary markets throughout Kansas, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. The company sold those theaters to Michael Patrick’s Carmike Cinemas for a profit in a deal that closed last week.

The company also joined hands with its distributor Warner Bros. and with French textile giant Chargeurs to build multiplexes in Holland. That was sold back to Chargeurs in 1995.

He also helped set up the company with $100 million in financing in a joint venture with Nomura-Babcock & Brown and $150 million more after Morgan Creek merged its foreign account with its domestic account through Chemical Bank (now Chase Manhattan).