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Jim Henson's Children Put Together a String of Big Deals to Keep Alive : The Muppet Legacy

July 26, 1992|DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

According to Rivkin, only the theme park deal came as a byproduct of the resolution of the 1991 litigation with Disney. "Dinosaurs," he confirmed, began as Jim Henson's idea and was developed with Disney in the months immediately following his death.

"It just so happens that Disney is the best (partner) in a number of areas," Rivkin said. He also stressed that all Henson Productions' TV and film assets will revert to the company when the distribution licenses lapse.

From programming to playwear, Rivkin noted that Henson Productions is teaming with major partners other than Disney:

* Henson Productions also is collaborating on "Dog City," a show combining live action and animation scheduled to debut this fall on the Fox network.

* Within weeks, the company is to announce the creation of a Muppet music label with what Rivkin described as a "major" distributor. The label will feature the soundtrack of "The Muppet Christmas Carol," and will draw from older material, including original unreleased Jim Henson recordings.

* The company also has deals involving at least two additional feature movies with other major studios, according to Alex Rockwell, 29, Henson Productions' senior vice president of creative affairs. It is to co-produce with Francis Ford Coppola a live-action version of the 1940 Disney classic, "Pinocchio," for Warner Bros., where Brian Henson's 32-year-old sister, Lisa, is a top production executive. Henson Productions also is committed to co-produce another film, "Into the Woods," to be distributed by Columbia Pictures.

"When it comes to studios, I'm trying to know every one of them," said Brian Henson.

Rivkin, hired out of Harvard Business school by Jim Henson in 1988 and promoted last year to chief operating officer, describes a company transformed. Gone, he said, are the days of "very rudimentary" budgeting and business planning.

"I think Brian realizes that we have an incredibly powerful business and that it can be run efficiently. . . . I don't want to insult the past--because the past is what we're growing from. We're able to take the under-exploited assets and make them a lot stronger. . . . (By) the end of the year, the Muppets are going to be all over the airwaves, in all media. I think we're witnessing a resurgence, or even a renaissance, of the Muppet franchise."

But will the stepped-up, worldwide marketing of the Muppet characters diminish them? Can Henson remain Henson when it teams with Hollywood's top commercial studios? Can the magic be kept alive?

The answers may depend on how independent Henson Productions can remain.

"Will the Henson family have that total control, or is it going to be diluted to please other people?" asked Ward Kimball, one of Walt Disney's original "Nine Old Men" of top animators who saw that company sputter creatively after Disney's death in 1966.

Said Lisa Henson: "I think that the people who work in the company have a very clear sense, when they consider a project, whether it is" consistent with Henson Productions' traditional standards. She defined the basic company ideal as "some combination of friendliness and irreverence and humor."

In the view of Frith, the puppet maker who first collaborated with Jim Henson in 1975: "We lost a vital and exciting and terribly talented person. But at the same time, the path still seems quite clear. . . . I find that Brian is clearer and even stricter on some of these things than even Jim was."

Sitting on a couch at the Hollywood offices, not far from a picture of himself with the father who remains a legend, Brian Henson weighs the unavoidable: What would Jim think?

"Every decision you make, you have to be careful," he said. "I have to hope and assume that he would be very happy with what we're doing--because that's something I have to consider when I do anything."

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