Wrekin Hill, NECA team on distrib deal

SXSW title 'Hesher' is first pic in partnership

Collectible merchandise maker NECA isn’t just toying around with the idea of getting into the film distribution biz — the company has paired up with Wrekin Hill Entertainment to release up to five films a year, starting with the indie “Hesher,” on May 13.

“Hesher,” which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman, bowed at the Sundance Film Fest last year and is screening at South by Southwest this week.

Wrekin Hill will handle the U.S. distribution of titles that it acquires with NECA.

NECA, best known for creating action figures, statues and other collectibles based on movies, TV shows, vidgames, music acts and sports teams, had already been making moves to become a larger player in the film biz.

The two recently bought rights to SXSW docu comedy “The People vs. George Lucas,” from helmer Alexandre O. Phillipe, as well as J.B. Ghuman Jr.’s musical-comedy “Spork,” which preemed at last year’s Tribeca Film Fest. Both pics will bow sometime this year.

At the same time, Wrekin Hill has formed genre label Underhill Films, with NECA set to handle traditional DVD, as well as video-on-demand and other digital distribution for titles that are released through that banner. Wrekin Hill was formed last year by Chris Ball, president and co-founder of Newmarket.

Underhill’s slate already includes pickups like Suri Krishnamma’s thriller “Locked In,” starring Ben Barnes and Eliza Dushku, and Brian Metcalf’s horror pic “Fading of the Cries,” starring Brad Dourif.

NECA has been wanting to start its own kiosk-based rental service that competes with Redbox and Blockbuster and launch a digital streaming rental operation.

But NECA hadn’t revealed just how it planned on doing so until last December when it purchased a majority of the assets of Movie Gallery Inc., the parent company of now shuttered homevideo chains Movie Gallery and Hollywood Video.

Deals included the Movie Gallery, Hollywood Video and Game Crazy brands and their massive customer databases. Movie Gallery had been testing digital kiosks in its stores through Digiboo.

A separate deal, also last month, included the purchase of Reel.com, which Hollywood Video had purchased for $100 million in 1998. Site sold DVDs and provided an IMDB-like database of information about movies.

Although NECA will handle Underhill’s homevideo releases, Wrekin Hill had already inked a distribution deal with Lionsgate last year to handle its own homevideo titles.