Eisner’s Tornante inks distrib deal with U

Pact portends a return to movies for former Disney topper

Michael Eisner’s new distribution pact with Universal goes a long way toward furthering his efforts to raise a production fund.

On Tuesday, the former Disney topper announced a worldwide distribution deal between his investment firm the Tornante Co. and Universal, returning Eisner to the moviemaking biz and overcoming a key challenge to his long-gestating fundraising efforts.

Under the terms of the multiyear deal, U will put up the P&A for a certain amount of qualifying pictures. Further terms were not disclosed.

Variety reported in January that Eisner was looking to raise $400 million in equity for a production fund, an effort which attracted skepticism from the financial community. Observers doubted that even Eisner, with his executive pedigree and relationships, could overcome the equity drought that has plagued Hollywood since the 2008 financial crisis began. Eisner wasn’t even the only former Disney topper looking for money — Dick Cook has been on the hunt for a sizable amount of coin for his own production venture.

Eisner’s efforts faced one big hurdle: distribution.

He had wanted to use a healthy production fund to secure a generous studio distribution deal for his product, according to multiple financial sources. But investors, more wary than just a few years ago, overwhelmingly wanted the safeguard of studio distribution before signing any checks. Eisner has spent months discussing the possibility of a deal with a number of studios.

But Eisner, who has been keeping busy with various media ventures since leaving Disney in 2005, told Variety that he had other reasons for going to Universal.

“I did not want to be in distribution,” he said, noting his familiarity with Universal Intl. from his days as prexy of Paramount (The studios collaborated on foreign distribution for many years). “I wanted to pick a company I knew well.”

Eisner formed Tornante the year he left Disney and immediately began focusing on non-film projects: Tornante has since acquired Topps baseball card publishers, Internet chore site Task Rabbit and made-for-Internet production shingle Vuguru, which has developed programming including Hulu’s “The Booth at the End” and AOL’s “Little Women Big Cars.” In 2009, Tornante cut a deal with Canadian media conglom Rogers Communications to help fund production of Vuguru’s projects.

While Eisner’s U deal may return him to filmmaking, it’s not clear just what kinds of pics he’d like to make. The exec expects the first movie to come out at the end of 2014 or early 2015, but he has not yet chosen what that will be. He’s in development on a toon based on Topps’ Garbage Pail Kids property, and Eisner could potentially add to Universal’s slate of animated fare. Studio has a deal with Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, which has produced three pics since the two pacted in 2008.

“(We’ll do) the kind of movies I’ve done most of my career, which are eclectic, strong story-driven movies,” Eisner told Variety, declining to speculate on how many films the new venture would target or how much they would cost. “It’s hard to find what you don’t know yet.”

Universal has distribution deals with shingles including Morgan Creek, Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures, Cross Creek, MRC and Paul Brooks and Jason Blum’s Angle Films. While U can often choose to co-finance projects on a deal-by-deal basis, its pacts generally provide the studio with a steady stream of fully financed content. That’s especially useful as the studio continues to search for a backer to replace investment vehicle Beverly II, which will stop funding films greenlit after the end of this year.

Michael Eisner has been a powerful creative force behind some of the world’s greatest films, and we’re confident that with Tornante, he’ll continue that tradition,” said U chair Adam Fogelson and co-chair Donna Langley in a statement. “Our organization is the perfect partner for Tornante, and we look forward to bringing quality commercial films to the global marketplace together.”