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Fox renamed that toon

Rechristened Family Films arm now devoted to animation

Bolstered by the launch of its debut animated film “Anastasia,” 20th Century Fox is in the process of restructuring and expanding its animation operations, which includes the renaming of Fox Family Films to Fox Animation Studios, Fox confirmed Wednesday.

The reconstituted Fox division will continue to be run by current Fox Family Films’ president Chris Meledandri, but now will focus solely on animated, stop motion, mixed media and digitally-produced feature films. Consequently, the division will shed its live-action development and production operations.

Fox Family Films is the leanest of the four Fox film divisions, and the restructuring will mean only two executives will be leaving the company. It is unclear whether Fox Family senior VP Jon Jashni, the second-in-command who has overseen live-action development and production since 1995, will remain at the studio with another division, or whether he will go to another studio.

“We are currently talking to Jon about another role for him, either in the studio or as a producer,” said Meledandri.

It is clear, however, that Jashni will not remain with the new division, and that he has been contacted by other studios.

Veepee of production Garby Leon, who worked with Jashni on the live-action side, is expected to leave Fox, but Meledandri said nothing has yet been determined.

On the other hand, as part of the expansion, Fox Family Films vice president Kevin Bannerman has been promoted to senior VP of the newly named division. Melissa Cobb, who previously had been brought in as a production veep, also remains at the banner.

Fox has slowly cut back on the amount of live action it was developing in order to concentrate on animated fare (Daily Variety, Aug. 26, 1997), but the division continued to develop such live-action projects as the Marvel comics-inspired “Silver Surfer,” the disaster films spoof “Disaster Area” and “Fantastic Voyage,” to be produced by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. The division’s next, and possibly last, live-action feature will be the upcoming Drew Barrymore starrer “Cinderella.”

While no decisions have been made regarding Family Films’ current non-animated development slate, within the next few months the 30-plus live-action projects will be transferred to Tom Rothman’s 20th Century Fox, Laura Ziskin’s Fox 2000 or will be put into turnaround.

Since opening its doors in 1994, Family Films has produced the live-actioners “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie” as well as its sequel, “Dunston Checks In,” “Home Alone 3” and “Cinderella.”

But it has been the success of “Anastasia” that has emboldened the studio to proceed with an exclusive animation wing. While the film has been a qualified success, bringing in nearly $75 million worldwide (and has yet to open in several major foreign territories), it cost a reported $53 million to make and another $50 million to put into theaters and market.

“The new division represents a tremendous opportunity to stretch the boundaries of this exciting field, and we are particularly pleased that Chris Meledandri, who has played such an important role in “Anastasia’s” success, will continue to lend his invaluable talents to our efforts,” said Bill Mechanic, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

“We have been and continue to be committed to animation for the long haul, and this expansion reflects the exciting potential that ‘Anastasia’ has opened up for us.”

Fox claimed its dedication to animated films in 1994 when it began construction of the 66,000-square-foot Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, Ariz. In three years, the studio managed to build the facility, staff it with animators and produce “Anastasia.”

Fox is in pre-production on its second animated release, the sweeping sci-fi adventure tale, “Planet Ice.” Actors Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Drew Barrymore, Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, Jeneane Garofalo, Lena Olin and Jim Breuer are set to voice the characters, and Art Vitello is directing.

Fox is expected to announce its next project from “Anastasia” filmmakers Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who will continue their roles as the studio’s “flagship company of filmmakers,” according to Meledandri.

As part of the revamping, Meledandri will add creative execs in both Century City and Phoenix.

Among the other projects falling under the newly named division are the mixed media (a combination of live action, cel animation, stop motion and digital animation) project “Dark Town,” from producers Henry Selick and Chris Columbus and written by Sam Hamm; and the digitally-animated fantasy-adventure “Santa Calls,” which is being produced in conjunction with special effects house Blue Sky/VIFX.

The restructuring also allows Meledandri to break from the restrictions imposed by the Fox Family Films moniker. While the division was established to participate in the highly lucrative family films market — once dominated by Disney’s animated and live-action fare, and in which Fox had had success with such films as “Home Alone” — the label felt ghettoized by the name, according to sources at the studio, and was limited in its access to high-profile projects, directors and talent.

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