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Manex out of ‘Matrix’ loop

Firm pursuing legal means for piece of project

This article was updated on March 15, 2001.

Despite winning an Oscar for its visuals in “The Matrix,” Manex Entertainment needs a kung-fu fighting superhero to win any chance of working on Warner Bros.’ upcoming sequels for the film.

Recent financial woes at Manex have prompted “Matrix” producers EON Enterprises and Village Roadshow not to award a $30 million contract to Manex’s visual f/x arm, opting instead for ESC Entertainment, a new facility founded by members of the Manex team that created the shots and technology for the first pic. Warner Bros. is distribbing the sequels beginning next year.

Manex, which had already done extensive pre-production work on the two sequels, is pursuing legal options to guarantee itself some part of the project.

Losing “Matrix” last week to ESC Entertainment, which only officially formed on Friday, is a definite blow to Manex. The company has been struggling to climb out of debt by bidding for more f/x contracts, and by launching other profit-margin-building arms, including an Internet and feature production division under the Manex Entertainment moniker.

The privately held Manex had been trying to raise additional funding to finance its new divisions, using the “Matrix” sequels and a new senior management team to help attract investors.

Talent departure

However, its Manex Interactive division shuttered after Christmas, and Manex has watched the departure of high-level execs, including its chief technology officer and engineers George Borshukov, Kim Libreri and Dan Piponi. That group recently received an Academy of Arts and Sciences certificate for technical achievement for developing a popular virtual cinematography software system that creates computer-generated virtual sets for pics, musicvideos and commercials. They are said to have ankled to join ESC Entertainment.

Layoffs are now likely to hit Manex’s core f/x arm, and some of its execs have already begun calling other facilities to place Manex’s artists.

Although details regarding ESC (pronounced “escape”) Entertainment are scant, it is known that Tom Davila has been tapped prexy of the company, based only minutes from Manex’s soundstage facility, and is hiring away many of Manex’s digital artists.

The company hopes to branch out and bid on films from other studios once the “Matrix” sequels are completed. While Warner Bros. is distribbing the pics, EON and Village Roadshow are producing and awarded the sequels contract to ESC Entertainment based largely on the fact that ESC is made up of the team that worked on the first “Matrix” film.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Warner Bros. said it is not climbing back into the f/x game and is not an owner in the new studio.

Warner Bros. shut down its own inhouse f/x facility, Warner Digital Studios, in 1997, after roughly a year in operation. It was deemed too expensive, and the studio, like others, began awarding its films to other major and well-established f/x houses.

Joint efforts continue

The split between Warner Bros. and Manex is somewhat surprising, considering that the two companies are still working together on several pics, including “13 Ghosts” and “Queen of the Damned,” and Warners is shooting part of both “Matrix” sequels at Manex-operated Alameda Naval Station near San Francisco. WB is, however, renting the soundstages from the city instead of directly from Manex.

Despite the switch, there’s still a chance that Manex ultimately may handle some of the f/x work on the $100 million sequels.

Manex had already been paid an undisclosed amount for pre-production work on the films. That effort included the development of proprietary facial-scanning software that is owned by Manex. Legal issues could arise, should ESC Entertainment try to use that software.

Said Manex Entertainment CEO Gary Kutcher: “Through Thomas V. Girardi and the law firm of Girardi and Keefe, Manex is in direct communications with John Schulman, executive veep and general counsel for Warner Bros. Manex is working diligently to resolve our differences and expects a positive outcome for all parties.”

Manex most recently created visuals for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It also worked on “Almost Famous,” “American Beauty” and “Mission: Impossible 2.” It won its first Oscar for “What Dreams May Come.”

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