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THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Company Town : Muppets Cut Deal With Sony Pictures

July 21, 1995|CLAUDIA ELLER

Sony Pictures Entertainment is betting big on Brian Henson, 31-year-old son of late Muppet creator Jim Henson. Brian Henson assumed the mantle of his father's empire after his sudden death five years ago from pneumonia.

Sony's Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos. and Jim Henson Productions have created a new joint venture company, Jim Henson Pictures, that will develop and produce films exclusively for the family entertainment market.

The arrangement, which has been in the works for some time but was finalized and announced Thursday, instantly puts Sony in the character-driven family film business. Its two movie studios, Columbia and TriStar, have lagged behind their competitors, particularly Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros., in this arena.

"We were looking for this type of opportunity," said Sony President Alan J. Levine, explaining that while Columbia and TriStar have released some family films over the years [such as "Ghostbusters"], "we don't have a lot of character-driven assets in our history."

Over the course of four decades, the Henson franchise, with the worldwide success of its popular Muppet characters, has become a brand name in family entertainment.

"So, this gives us instant impact in the family film business," said Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos.

All consumer products flowing from the movies will be managed by a joint venture of Sony Signature (Sony's merchandising arm) and Jim Henson Productions, the privately held independent multimedia production company run by Brian Henson and his 33-year-old president, Charles H. Rivkin.

Earlier this year, Sony signed an exclusive deal with the nonprofit Children's Television Workshop--which controls Henson's "Sesame Street" characters--to develop, produce and distribute movies, home videos, audiotapes and books on tape.

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Eventually, Henson Pictures, as well as the 48-person staff of the Los Angeles-based Henson Productions, will be headquartered at Sony's Culver City studios.

Levine refused to discuss any financial aspects of the new deal, but a knowledgeable source said Sony is committing up to $75 million in initial production funds. That investment will naturally grow over the life of the arrangement, which Levine says has no time element because, unlike a traditional studio production or "term" deal, "we're creating an asset--a new company."

The Sony president did say the venture anticipates 10 to 15 movies in the next three to five years. Sony will finance 100% of the films' production, marketing and distribution costs.

Levine stressed that the new company will be autonomous, with creative and "asset-building" responsibilities and day-to-day management resting with Brian Henson and Rivkin.

Henson, seated at a conference table at Sony on Thursday with Rivkin and Sony brass at Sony's Culver City headquarters, was uncharacteristically sporting a necktie (with a Kermit motif) along with his new partners. He said that, just as his father built Henson Productions "with a creative head, I will run [the joint venture] in the same way."

Fred Bernstein, president of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos., said, "We've created a company and entrusted Jim Henson Productions to be the creative force and generate material. This is not a 'mother, may I?' situation."

Henson said that Henson Productions has primarily been a TV company and "we've never been involved in controlling our movies." Over the years, the company's feature releases, which include four Muppet movies as well as "The Dark Crystal," "Witches" and "Labyrinth," have been owned and distributed by various major studios, including Disney.

Henson, who like his father is a puppeteer and a director in his own right, just wrapped the fifth Muppet movie, "Muppet Treasure Island," which Disney will release next February.

Disney has the option on one more Muppet movie, at which point the franchise will move to the Sony joint venture.

Henson said he'd like to release Muppet movies more regularly (there was an eight-year gap between the third and fourth), but he's also interested in making other kinds of family fare.

"I see us working in a lot of different styles of animation and live action as well," he said, noting: "The expectation is that the movies will be high concept and something slightly unexpected."

Less than a year after his 53-year-old father's death in May, 1990, Brian Henson, then 27, was chosen by his four siblings to take over the company and carry his father's creative torch into the next century.

Henson Productions, which employs 195 people between its Los Angeles, New York and London operations, is wholly owned by the Henson family. Brian's older sister, Lisa Henson, 35, who sits on the board, is president of Columbia Pictures.

Though she was instrumental in introducing her brother to Sony, Brian Henson said his sister "stayed right out of it [the deal]. . . . Lisa has never sat in on any of our meetings."

Canton said he views the sibling relationship "as an asset, not a conflict," adding that as president of Columbia, "from time to time, Lisa will be involved."

The other Henson siblings are Cheryl, 33, who's the company liaison with Children's Television Workshop; John, 30, and Heather, 24.

Brian Henson, a college dropout who began performing marionettes at 17 under his father's tutelage in "The Great Muppet Caper" and is credited with puppetry and special effects in various other family films, said he is committed to carrying on the legacy of his father.

"We're trying to keep alive his vision and style and how he started the company."

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