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Section Eight goes up in Smoke

Clooney, Soderbergh call it quits

New Hollywood partnerships have been as prolific in recent years as George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s production shingle Section Eight. But after nearly seven years, Clooney and Soderbergh are discharging Section Eight and going their separate ways.

The closure of the company, which produced such high-profile commercial hits as “Ocean’s Eleven” and Oscar-nominated fare such as “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Syriana,” has been in the works for at least two years. Clooney says he and Soderbergh will continue to work together, but they always intended Section Eight to be temporary.

“Although we have other films coming out, and we have other projects we’re working on together, it’s basically the end of that phase,” says Clooney. “The Good German,” due out in December, will be followed by the company’s swan song, “Ocean’s Thirteen,” next summer.

Soderbergh will concentrate on directing, while Clooney has set up a new production company, Smoke House, with his longtime friend and collaborator Grant Heslov.

“The mandate is no different. We just want to make good films and films that are interesting in some ways that you haven’t seen before,” Heslov says.

Smoke House, which opened for business Aug. 1, has lined up 1920s football drama “Leatherheads” as its first project, with Clooney to direct and star in the pic for Universal. Heslov says the company will continue to consider producing pics that neither he nor Clooney is attached to on a case-by-case basis.

Soderbergh and Clooney first teamed up for 1998’s “Out of Sight,” and decided over dinner the following year to form Section Eight to make films that suited their common interests. They struck a deal in December 1999 with Warner Bros., promising to make films as cheaply as possible in exchange for minimal creative interference.

Section Eight’s best-known projects were considered hits: “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve” grossed more than $800 million worldwide; “Good Night, and Good Luck” was nommed last year for six Academy Awards, including screenplay, actor and picture; and Clooney himself took home a supporting actor Oscar last year for his perf in Stephen Gaghan’s petro-political drama “Syriana.”

But as with any experiment, there are failures that range from minor to major. “Welcome to Collinwood” and “Criminal” both flopped, each failing to gross $1 million domestically. Other pics, such as Clooney’s directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Solaris” were much discussed but earned only mild critical acclaim and B.O. success.

One of Section Eight’s goals was to search out new voices and help them see their visions through the studio process. “The best thing good producers do is just keep directors from having to obsess over really stupid things along the way,” says Clooney.

Clooney admits he and Soderbergh were not always successful. The company set up Ted Griffin to direct “Rumor Has It” from his own screenplay, but conflicts on the set led to Griffin being removed from the film and replaced by Rob Reiner.

“We were off shooting ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ and weren’t really around to protect Ted from whatever the pitfalls were,” recalls Clooney.

Heslov came onto Section Eight as a development exec before taking over the company’s TV efforts and finishing up as president of production. Section Eight made two ventures into television: “K Street,” a drama set in the world of Washington, D.C. lobbyists, and “Unscripted,” about struggling actors. Both projects were made for HBO and lasted a single season.

Heslov says “K Street” ended because Soderbergh, who directed all 10 episodes, decided to end it. “Unscripted” fell victim to bad timing, coming on the air at the same time as “Entourage” and “The Comeback.”

“To have four or five shows that all circle around the same world was just too much,” says Heslov.

Overall, Clooney says Section Eight was a worthwhile experiment.

“Steven and I were talking about it on the plane this morning, because we’re about to wrap up ‘(Ocean’s) Thirteen,’ ” Clooney says. “And I looked over and said, ‘So how do you think we did?’ And he said, ‘I think we did pretty good.’ I said, ‘I think we did pretty good, too.’ “

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