Starz Shutters Original-Film Unit

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While premium-network rivals Home Box Office and Showtime Networks Inc. have built ratings, bolstered brand identity and garnered critical acclaim through their original movies, Starz Encore Group LLC has pulled the plug on a unit dedicated to producing telefilms.

After establishing that made-for-cable films unit in Beverly Hills, Calif., three years ago, a spokesman for the premium TV service said the operation is "winding down." Starz declined further comment.

Over that span, Starz Pictures had just one film to its credit that it orchestrated from inception — the well-received Joe and Max. The dramatization of the fights and friendship between heavyweight boxing competitors Joe Louis and Max Schmeling bowed last March.

The film carried a budget of some $8 million.

The four-person Starz Pictures unit was headed by Paige Orloff, who resigned earlier this summer.

Starz Pictures will continue to bring fresh fare to complement Starz's lineup of studio films through investments in so-called "busted theatricals" — or planned theatrical movies dropped from production by the studios — such as the recent Billy Bob Thornton film, Badge.

Sources said that over its run, Starz Pictures had up to a dozen projects in various stages of development. Furthest along were Up for Hatred, a biography about Lloyd Cochran, a leader of the Aryan Nation, and The Riverman, a look at the search to find serial killer Ted Bundy.

The resources used to fund the original telefilms will be reallocated to Starz Encore's efforts in the video-on-demand and subscription VOD arenas, according to sources.

"In difficult economic times, Starz Pictures was feeling budgetary constraints," said one source. "While original films draw press and consumer attention, it's tough to quantify if original films like Joe and Max
wind up adding 1,000 new subscribers or 500,000.

"Those production dollars will be reassigned to help operators push VOD and SVOD offerings."

The move away from made-for-cable films also does not mark the end of Starz Entertainment, which has been involved with co-productions like Tortilla Soup
and the upcoming Skins, which opens in theaters on Sept. 27.

Similarly, sources said sister Starz will continue to make documentaries to support its multiplex channels, while sister network Encore would continue to produce its Directors
series, chronicling the works and careers of top filmmakers.

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