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Kevin McCollum: Fox Finds Its Stage Coach

Theater producer teams with studio on broad theatrical venture

The sentiment may not sound sexy, but it goes a long way toward explaining what led 20th Century Fox to tap Broadway producer Kevin McCollum for its new theatrical joint venture:

“Theater,” McCollum says, “is a research-and-development business, structured like manufacturing.”

With almost every other major studio taking an interest in the legit space, Fox has been notably circumspect about jumping into the fray of a risk-heavy business that, when it works, can nonetheless have a huge upside. (See Disney’s “The Lion King,” or Universal’s “Wicked.”)

In pinpointing the showbiz tension between the R&D of the creative process and the moneymaking business grind, McCollum comes down firmly on the side of giving artists the time and space to create before imposing the pressure of a Main Stem deadline. It’s a deliberate approach that matches the care with which Fox is moving forward in its own legit endeavors.

The new Fox venture partners in the studio with McCollum, currently riding high on the strength of the boffo sales of “Motown,” and two other execs: film producer John Davis, who has a long relationship with Fox (“Predator,” “I, Robot,” “Chronicle”); and former Hollywood film exec Tom McGrath, who until recently was chair of Key Brand Entertainment, owner of Broadway Across America.

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Fox and the trio will split the cost of the development slate equally. The partners are keeping mum on the exact amount of the fund, but it’s worth remembering that while a large-scale Broadway production can easily see its capitalization wind up between $10 million and $15 million, the pricetag for just pre-production creative development is significantly less, averaging around $500,000 per title, according to other producers who develop new Rialto work.

“It’s not about producing a Broadway show,” McCollum says. “It’s about spending the money prudently to get the right people into the room to create the alchemy.”

Participants also are keeping quiet on probable titles, other than to say the roster will likely be a mix of the expected popular hits plus some lesser-known choices.

Among the many possibilities that might be pulled from the vault: “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Edward Scissorhands,” to name just a few.

An equal partnership between studio and legit producer is rare for Broadway, which has seen Hollywood set up branded theater divisions (Disney Theatrical Prods., Warner Bros. Theater Ventures) or invest in the work of a single producer (Sony’s deal with Scott Sanders).

For Fox, the advantage of the new arrangement lies in working closely with a producer whose track record of profitable, award-winning work — including “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights” — means he has deep connections in the insular and often idiosyncratic Broadway community.

Davis brings his movie-industry ties to the table, while McGrath has an unusual breadth of experience in both Hollywood and Broadway. The contributions in institutional knowledge would seem to be invaluable for a studio looking to have an ongoing involvement in theatrical production beyond just the licensing of past titles such as “9 to 5” and “Young Frankenstein.”

The goal is an active theatrical office. Fox has tapped Isaac Robert Hurwitz, who co-founded the New York Musical Theater Festival and led it for the past decade, to serve as the new endeavor’s ongoing legit consultant. Hurwitz will be the day-to-day liaison between McCollum and the studio, and will also work on pushing forward stage projects outside of that development deal. (Among those projects: “Ever After,” a brewing musical on which McCollum happens to be a general partner.)

“This is about developing a viable division of the studio,” Hurwitz says.

In doing so, Hurwitz and Fox will work with a partner who positions himself as a champion of untested artists on the Rialto, and an advocate of ideas before product.

“If a creative gets inspired by something,” he says, “then in my experience, you should really listen to that.”

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