Lion king finds new lair

McGurk goes live at IDT

There’s a new live-action studio in town, with a Hollywood veteran in charge.

Chris McGurk is joining IDT Entertainment — a division of New Jersey-based telco IDT that has invested heavily in animation, TV and homevideo over the past few years — to build live-action production and theatrical distribution operations.

That process is expected to take about a year, after which McGurk will head up both units.

For now, though, the former MGM vice chairman is serving as senior adviser, new ventures, a role that also calls for him to develop plans for digital platforms.

IDT’s live-action production is expected to focus on low-cost genre pictures such as horror and sci-fi. Company also hopes to distribute its own CG toons once a pact with Fox expires in 2008.

Move answers the question of what McGurk will do next. He previously held top roles at Disney and Universal before becoming No. 2 at MGM from 1999 until it was sold to a consortium of investors, including Sony, last year.

In the past year, he has joined the boards of several tech and media companies, including DivX and DIC Entertainment, while considering offers and enjoying the $5.75 million payout he drew for the remainder of his contract when MGM was sold last year.

“Over the years I have worked at a succession of giant companies, so this time I wanted to come at entertainment from the other way,” McGurk told Daily Variety. “With IDT I have a great opportunity to build a fully integrated studio, one that’s poised to take advantage of digital opportunities and without the baggage that a lot of big entertainment companies have.”

McGurk, who will be working out of IDT Entertainment’s West Coast headquarters in Burbank, faces a number of major tasks.

In addition to assembling a lean production and distribution team, he’ll be seeking partners to handle international operations and private equity investors to co-finance his new employer’s upcoming slate.

IDT Entertainment already has a strong homevideo operation in Anchor Bay.

On TV, it produced the “Masters of Horror” and “Masters of Science Fiction” series for Showtime and ABC.

In addition, company has invested heavily in animation. It owns animation house Film Roman, producer of “The Simpsons,” and has several CG features in development and production at locations in the U.S. and Canada, including September release “Everyone’s Hero.”

Live-action production and theatrical distribution are both riskier businesses, however. Move into those areas indicates IDT is willing to invest even more in order to become a bigger player in Hollywood.

“The only thing that has separated us from a classic mini-major is theatrical distribution and some live-action product, and that is what we are looking for from Chris first and foremost,” IDT Entertainment CEO Morris Berger said. “He will help us solidify a plan to control more of our own distribution channels while continuing to make investments that are low risk and high reward.”

Once a distribution operation is up and running, McGurk said IDT will consider acquisitions and “rent-a-distributor” deals along with handling its own product.

On the digital front, McGurk hopes to help IDT set up partnerships to distribute its content, as well as establish a stronger presence of its own online and on mobile devices.